Death and Social Media

In the next couple months, the cycle of life and death in one of our experiments comes to a close, and the autopsies of the monkeys in said experiment begin. These monkeys were born to be experimented on; they have no Facebook, no twitter, no email accounts, and will leave no legacy to their name. When they die, their bodies are swept away into a hazmat bag, their brains studied, and eventually discarded as well. No one will remember them by much more than their number, if that. It made me wonder about what happens to us when we die.

No, not the afterlife, there’s no real point speculating about that, we’ll never actually know until we die. I mean what happens to our social media identities when we pass on. My freshman year of college a guy I had maybe spoke two words to in high school was struck by lightning while surfing and died. To this day, I still see his picture in my right hand corner of Facebook every once in a while suggesting that I “friend” him. A guy in a fraternity here at UMD died a few weeks ago; I don’t follow him but my friends mention him every once in a while saying how much they miss him. His profile is public, and his most recent tweet was “fuckin cards, brings back bad memories.” It’s hard to imagine that’s how he wants to be remembered.

I did some research and I found out that there are several options when it comes to dealing with your social media outlets after death, but all of them involve the assistance of close relatives. Provided they can present proof, Facebook allows you to either delete or memorialize your page when you’re gone. Once memorialized, your page will no longer be able to be searched or found on the news feed, and won’t be “suggested” to others. Twitter allows your relatives (again, with evidence of your death, such as an obituary) to have an archive of all public tweets, or to just get rid of it entirely. In the case of email, some sites, such as Gmail, will allow a friend or relative to deactivate an accout, while Hotmail provides them all the contents of your inbox (none of these sites, however, will give out the username and password). If you’re really worried about the contents of your social media history, you can create a digital will that provides passwords or requests for the fate of your online identity. The question is, how do you want to be remembered? Memorialized in the world of bits… or deleted for good?

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A New Kind of Bullying

Monkeys can be physically vicious, especially the macaques that I work with. On more than one occasion I have had to use the nearby hose during observations and spray the moms as they battle over everything from the last food pellet to, well, just because they feel like it. When we introduced new males into the packs we had to have 24-hour supervisions to make sure they didn’t rip each others’ faces off. My favorite 3-month old rhesus was brutally attacked in the middle of the night by several adults because she stuck her nose where she wasn’t supposed to. It’s safe to say that these monkeys, as is the case with many other species of monkeys around the world, are bullies. But when it comes to hurting each other, monkeys are limited to the physical: they can’t gossip behind each other’s back, they can’t scream hurtful words, and they can’t cyber-bully.

Usually I write about the ways in which monkeys and humans aren’t so different, but in this case, being able to cause emotional damage seems to be a unique human trait. In the past, when kids would tease and torment each other, it was pretty limited to “Your Mom” jokes and in-person gossip. I’m not saying that bullying before pervasive technology wasn’t painful (I’m in the boxing club and I can honestly say I’d rather be punched square in the nose than go through the bullying I experienced in middle school again) but humans have managed to take the art of putting each other down to a new level with the introduction of social media.

It seems a day can’t go by without hearing another horrifying news piece about cyber-bullying. Take the story of Ryan Halligan, who was mercilessly tormented by his classmates accusing him of being gay via instant messages. There’s also the case of Megan Meier who was bullied through MySpace. Both were only 13 years old, and both committed suicide. It’s not limited to children, though: according to Personnel Today, at least 1 in every 10 adult workers experiences cyber-bullying too. Smartphone technology doesn’t exactly help either; the entire concept of a BBM (Black Berry Messenger) group is to be able to speak to a select few people at one time and is a blatant invitation for gossip about those not included.

We as humans have created an incredible and convenient system of communication that can be used for so much good, but there are always going to be those who abuse it for reasons no better than, well, just because they feel like it.

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?

The Origin of the Social Self

Personalizing our interests on Facebook, fleshing out our Twitter profiles, and picking and choosing the locations which we share with our friends on Foursquare: these are all ways in which we use social media and networking to create an identity of ourselves for the rest of the world to see. Anthropologist Herbert Spencer argues that naturally, we are beings that have “interrelated parts that operate interdependently”. With the increasing use of these different networking systems, this has forced us to segment ourselves into different and narrow identities—i.e. we reveal our businesslike personality on Linkedin, our popularity on Facebook, and with every new social site which requires us to form an identity, we create a new one which molds with the social circle that fits it.

Our relationships between social circles differ and so do the ways that we present ourselves not only to the different groups, but how we act toward them in general (and how we act toward the people who are not in any of our social media groups). The way Spencer makes his point, he seems to say that while we naturally have “parts that operate interdependently”, it is only through the recent boom in social media use that it is triggered and becomes obvious.

Then I found a scientific article from the Oxford Journals that studied the origins of social awareness. They discovered that the monkeys they were studying already had the ability to distinguish what they call the “social self”, or as they define it:

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Is there an evolutionary advantage to privacy?

Between increasing social media and ever-advancing technologies, the issue of privacy invasion is one worth addressing. One of the major questions I’ve noticed that surfaces in discussions on privacy is “Do the benefits outweigh the risks?” I wanted to dissect this question and reword it so that it becomes relevant to human behavior, so I began researching the topic: is there an evolutionary advantage to privacy? If there is, is this advantage still relevant in the age of digital technology and media?

I started with the basics, monkeys, and worked my way up from there. An interesting study performed by Emory University showed that rhesus macaques provided with the simplest form of privacy, a plastic divider that covered half of the opening between two cages, significantly decreased the occurrence of aggressive behavior and anxiety. I know, it doesn’t seem exactly groundbreaking to find out that you’re much less likely to attack your sibling if you have your own room, but it does provide some insight into the psychology of rhesus monkeys. As they usually live in packs and are incredibly social, it seems almost counterintuitive to find a positive outcome to an increase in separation between two individuals. It shows that on the most primitive, basic level of our ancestors, there was already a preference for privacy.

Photo from the study performed by Emory University. Monkeys are in two separate cages with a divider that covers half of the space between them, allowing them to move freely between the two, but still maintain a sense of privacy.

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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. 

How Many “Friends” are in your Primate Pack?

I came across an article written in 2007 about the approaching ubiquity of social media and how our need to utilize these networking tools may be explained by evolutionary psychology. In case you’re wondering how long ago 2007 was, this article prioritizes Myspace before Facebook and LinkedIn in front of Twitter when listing emerging “start-up” social media sites. Overall though, it’s a great review of Robin Dunbar’s book Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language which was written in 1997. In case you’re wondering how long ago 1997 was, consider the fact that you wouldn’t have been able to search the book on Google, because Google had yet to be founded.

The piece was written to speculate how, a decade after they were published, Dunbar’s theories hold up as the world becomes ever increasingly connected. There are many different topics touched upon (including the way grooming was linked to power struggles or how we gossiped before we even had the ability speak—I encourage you to read the entire article), but there was one part that I felt was particularly relevant enough to bring up again in 2011:

“[W]ith the new tool of language, humans managed to increase their group size significantly from the 50 or so members that characterize baboon and chimpanzee groupings.  But over the last 10,000 years or so, we seem to have hit another ceiling for an optimum group size in which members are reasonably in touch.  That number is about 150, a figure supported by examples that range from the size of Neolithic villages to military units to corporate management theory.  Organizations, of course, get bigger than that, but as they do they change character: bureaucracies, levels of authority, social stratification begin to emerge.  Dunbar theorizes that this may be due to the limits of how many individuals one can converse with, based on the acoustics of speech, and still have time to take care of life’s essentials.”

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Checking in to Four Square: You are Now the Mayor of Your Mother

When baby rhesus macaques start to gain independence from their mothers, they don’t just do as baby birds do and jump out of the nest for good, never to return. They have this behavior we like to call a “check-in”. Basically, a baby will run around and explore its surroundings alone, then when he gets afraid or uncomfortable, he’ll scurry back to his mom just to let her know he’s OK and to make sure she’s still there.

As of September 21st, 2011, the popular website Four Square reached 1 billion “check-ins”. Four Square is a social networking site that allows its users to let others know where they are, as long as they connect with their smartphone or other GPS-enabled device.

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