Twitter: the King of the Social Media Hierarchy

When the average person hears the word “hierarchy” his first reaction is usually to think of animals, or in the case of people, royalty; he doesn’t usually think of Twitter. But he should, and here’s why:

Primates using hierarchies as a main component of social structures originated in the non-human variety. To avoid predators and manage food, monkeys such as baboons developed large communities and as a result, hierarchies were formed to determine who was in power and who wasn’t. As humans, we still see hierarchies in the case of royalty, but I think we all know that even Queen Elizabeth is aware that her power as head of state is purely symbolic. As general (American) society has moved toward the nuclear family make-up (typically parents and their children living together, with very few extended relatives) mini-hierarchies may still exist, but for the most part had vanished in greater society. At least until social media, specifically Twitter, was created.

Most people these days judge popularity through the number of Facebook “friends” one has. The only problem with this is that the core tenant of popularity is that as one person rises in popularity, another falls. Popularity is a relative concept, so if everyone is popular, no one is. This is why Facebook isn’t the ideal measure of popularity, it’s too symmetric: if you gain a friend, so do they. Therefore, the Facebook Popularity Theory is flawed because you both become more popular. Twitter, on the other hand, exemplifies a hierarchy based on what analyst Matthew Ingram calls an “asymmetric follower model”. If one person follows you, you are not obliged to follow them back. In the case of Ashton Kutcher, he’s been dubbed the “Twitter King” because of his 8,000,000+ followers, compared with the paltry few hundred he follows in return. Many celebrities use Twitter as a way to establish their status as a member of the elite, by following as few people as possible. For example, Kanye West was proud of the fact that he followed absolutely no one, then decided to bestow the honor of his Twitter presence on to one lucky British teen…who then deleted his Twitter from all the requests and messages he then received—maybe some people just can’t handle that much power?

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This is your brain. This is your brain on social media.

In my previous post I wrote about the number of friends that anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated a person could theoretically have in his or her social circle (and reasonably communicate with) at one time, before the days of social media. The question was raised as to how this number compares in 2011, and the technical definition of “reasonable communication”. Today I found a study that may confirm that we are capable of increasing this size, and that evolution could play a part in it.

The study* compared a person’s popularity in social media (number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, etc.) to the size of their amygdalae. The researchers noticed that the larger the amygdalae, a part of the brain that helps with memory storage and has a large control of emotional reactions, the more apt a person would be to want to increase their online interactions.

This finding supports the idea of the “social brain hypothesis”, which theorizes that as we increase the complexity of our social structures, our brains begin to evolve in various ways to adapt. It is the perfect example of how the tools a user creates in turn begin to shape the user. How much of an impact could social media be playing in this increase in size? While it may be difficult, if not impossible due to time length, to track how much faster the average size is growing with the increasing use of sites such as Facebook,  it would be worth it to see if there are any other parts of the body that are so heavily affected. Who knows, maybe in the distant future our bodies will become perfectly adapted to type at increased speeds, or be able to look at a screen for extended periods of time. Then again, social media and technology evolve so quickly, I doubt we could ever keep up.

*Note: if you are a student at the University of Maryland, the full text of the study can be found on Research Port.