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    Socially Stunted by Facebook?
    By James Hawkins | March 23rd 2009 09:28 AM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Not a scientist by vocation, but instead an entrepreneur possessing a healthy dose of scientific curiosity, James not so rarely comes up with novel...

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    I was listening to a presentation being given by futurist David Houle a few days ago.  He began to talk about how technology is changing the way that people communicate and work, particularly with the exponential global growth in cell phone subscribers.  As he relayed stats, he discussed implications for how society works.  This made me begin to think of something that had been pestering the back of my mind for a while, the implications of the rapid adoption of Facebook.

    Recently I read in The Economist, in an article titled Primates on Facebook, about a study that was done of the number of friends people tend to have on Facebook.  What is interesting is that the findings are fairly consistent with limitations theorized by Robin Dunbar, who believes that the brain limits the size of a social network an individual can develop. An implication of this that came to my mind is that of the potential of reduced (not eliminated) social mobility.  By social mobility I don't necessarily mean upward, but at all.

    What do I mean?

    Most people go through life making batches of new friends, friends whose interests match theirs at some given point in life.  If, however, there is a cap on the size of a social network, and the legacy social network is preserved longer than it would be otherwise by way of Facebook or similar technology, then it would seem that the tendency to develop new friendships would have to be somehow inhibited.

    Think about it.  How many relationships have you developed in the last couple of years that have changed your life significantly?  If your ability to begin these relationships were somehow inhibited by an otherwise full network on your side or the others, such that you did not develop the same friendship, what would your life be like? 

    This could have important implications.  In another article recently in The Economist titled The Road Not Taken a theory was discussed that says that higher home ownership percentages are negative for an economy due to the decreased mobility of the workforce.  I had not heard this before, but it immediately made some sense to me, especially in these times of economic stress.  It also matched a long held personal belief that government intervention to increase home ownership is messing with nature, at least beyond some point, and thus may have adverse consequences, something that seems to be more evident now.

    The reason I mention this is that the idea that increased home ownership percentages might be negative for an economy is, at least initially, a bit counter intuitive.  The same goes for the idea of reduced social mobility due to the increased use of online social networks like Facebook - it is a bit counter intuitive.  Seemingly the increased communication would be good, for all kinds of reasons.  The problem may lay in the fact that we are all, well, primates.


    government intervention to increase home ownership

    Since when?
    I could cite the opposite.  Mass compulsion to leave a huge area, and that's just for the London Olympics!
    Paying the old and the infirm such a low pension that they are forced to move to smaller accomodation.
    Redevelopment due to an urban decay that was in its turn due to political interference.  Predictable instabilities in the economy leading to mortgage foreclosures.  Enforced workforce mobility?

    OOps!  It's turning into a political conspiracy theory.  Sorry!  I'll just get back to science, shall I?  ;)

    More on-topic:  social mobility doesn't imply any form or degree of physical mobility.  Someone who is housebound can have friends all over the planet, thanks to the internet.  I welcome this - more people using the internet = less people driving cars, flying, etc.  The global power consumption in an inter-web scenario is much lower than in an inter-transport scenario.  Maybe the Wall-E scenario is about right.  Future humans, homo telaens will be fat-fat-fat!
    I don't know how hard it is to get out of a lease in Britain, but in America you're more stuck with a rental agreement than you are with a house.   You can lower the price of your house and any number of corporations will buy your house for you so you can move but I have never heard of anyone buying out a rental lease for an employee.   And a landlord has no obligation at all to let you move and be forced to find another renter.

    I certainly agree about volume versus quality in social networks.   I don't have any extensive ones (outside here) and we are smaller than some of the really big sits, but the fellow who runs TechCrunch gave a talk a few weeks ago and said 50% of their revenue came from 'events' - real life gatherings of members who had initially met on the site.  So people would seem to want to have stronger relationships than they have online.
    In the movie Wall-E (see my edit above) the humans tend to group together socially, consuming electrical power.  The advantage of the web is that we are not forced to group together as a work-group in the daily grind.  The web has the potential to massively reduce fossil-fuel consumption and pollution, whilst massively increasing our abilities to socially 'network'.

    James: although the human memory for facts is vast, the memory for events is widely held to be severely limited.  Idle gossip, social networking is, I think, more event than fact, so we can only create new links by breaking old ones. You may find Michael White's link to a talk by Dr. Richard Hamming of interest.  The talk makes specific reference to some points you raise.

    Good thoughts.

    As for the anchoring effect of home ownership, I neglected to discuss being underwater as the anchor.  When homes were appreciating at a rapid clip, one might make the case that the effect was in fact the reverse as it gave people more freedom, financially, to make career choices, and, at least unconsciously, there would be some cash out reward (of home equity) for making moves.  Today, about everywhere, to my knowledge, this is not the case.  Instead, a sale of a home requires an owner to mark to the market, something people are loathe to do, and something mortage companies require to be funded with cash.  Selling a home for $100,000 less than a mortgage can be a lot more of an anchor than having 6 months left on a lease.

    Patrick, I sense in your second post ("we can only create new links by breaking old ones") that you had begun to give my hypothesis more credence as it surely is obvious that people will be reluctant to prune their friend list, particularly given that any social network capacity constraints will seemingly be unknown to all but those who read this or similar articles.

    Patrick, I sense in your second post ("we can only create new links by breaking old ones") that you had begun to give my hypothesis more credence as it surely is obvious that people will be reluctant to prune their friend list, particularly given that any social network capacity constraints will seemingly be unknown to all but those who read this or similar articles.
    I think you are 'onto something' with your hypothesis, yes.

    I note that you read the Economist.
    Have you ever considered money flows and goods flows in reverse?

    The 'science' of economics isn't a real science imo because it deliberately and consistently ignores widely available data - second-user goods, for one, the main exception being a special class of second-user goods, accomodation.

    The Strong Economy:
    Richer people have plenty of cash: they may sell their goods in order to more readily finance an upgrade.

    Poorer people have less cash: but they can buy the richer person's goods at second-hand, thereby owning goods which they could not otherwise afford to own.

    Haggling has a wide range.
    Goods, the true wealth, flow from richer to poorer people.

    The Weak Economy:
    Poorer people are short of cash: they sell their goods, including homes, to richer people in order to buy lower value goods.

    Richer people have plenty of cash: they can buy up cheap goods in a buyer's market.

    Haggling has a narrow range.
    Goods, the true wealth, flow from poorer to richer people.

    That is very much a 'nutshell' model, just the gist of a much more complex flow, posted to promote further debate.
    I would say that ownership of assets that earn are more representative of true wealth.  Goods, once bought, are essentially worthless.  They are a measure of apparent wealth, which is largely why people squander so much on goods, but certainly not true wealth.  True wealth, I would say, is ownership of something that provides income without effort, or income in excess of that generally justifiable by the effort (as with business ownership).  A new handbag is not true wealth.  It is as they say in Texas, "all hat and no cattle."

    Perhaps I misunderstand your concept?

    Goods, once bought, are essentially worthless.
    Unless they are capital goods or national assets.  A freshwater source can be a good, a national asset, and even a national treasure, all at the same time.  But if the notional 'owner' of a utility goes bust, who or what but a richer entity can purchase it?

    Harold Wilson (UK former Prime Minister) once said
    "the only asset a working man has is a pair of hands. "
     I would paraphrase: the only assets a nation has in continuity is its stock of goods, to include skills.  That is why economics figures so largely in the analysis of war:  war is a contest between nations in which they race to destroy each other's wealth in order to keep each other from using that wealth to create more weapons.
    Interesting thoughts.

    Another consideration is the pattern of "cognitive" rewards that Facebook gives you. After recently joining it, I got the impression that it has a novelty effect that wares off quickly unless you act against it. At first it was like, "Wow this is interesting look at all my old friends, & their recent pictures". But then that wore off until I did a second round of friend-inviting, which led to the same cycle, etc.

    The point is that in the long run, the pattern of rewards you get from using Facebook is distinctly different from the rewards you get in everyday social life, where it's harder to 'befriend' people. But then again, as we get more used to things like Facebook, it usage might approximate that of real life.

    For that matter, Facebook also provides rewards in the form of feeding one's curiosity about what has become of people.  This article, however, hints that there may be an unforseen effect of this, that of filling one's social network to capacity such that there is less room for new friends and acquaintances. 

    Another thing that comes to mind is where does the time come from?  All this Facebook time has to come from somewhere, thus some other time and energy allocation must be reduced.  What are the effects of this?
    Related to this is an article in The Week about Facebook Fatigue, how Facebook might ruin relationships.  This touches on how Facebook, not to mention e-mail and other technologies, is dramatically changing the nature of relationships.