Online Status Anxiety

Now that the social web is maturing - the platforms have been winnowed down to a select few (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) - some interesting commonalities are emerging. The one shared feature that I'm most interested in is also a little disturbing: the tendency of the social software to quantify our social life. Facebook doesn't just let us connect with our friends: it counts our friends. Twitter doesn't just allow us to aggregate a stream of chatter: it measures our social reach. LinkedIn has too many damn hierarchies to count. Even the staid blog is all about the metrics, from page views to unique visitors.

What I'm most troubled by is the desire of individuals (especially myself) to constantly check up on these numbers, and to accept these measurements as a measure of something meaningful. We've taken the natural nebulousness of social interactions - I might know you're important, but I don't know how important - and made them explicit. The end result is that our online relationships are shadowed by power relations.

Here's an example of what I'm referring to. I was recently talking to a twitterer with a very large number of followers. (My least favorite thing about Twitter is the use of "follow" within the platform, with its weird connotations of subservience. I don't want to "follow" a person, I just want to "listen" to them.) He complained that one of his frustrations with the platform was the sheer amount of feedback from all of his tweets. He said much of the feedback was genuine (and sometimes critical), but a lot of it also struck him as inherently "phony," in that it was written just to get a reply or retweet from him, which then might lead to some new "followers" for the lesser twitterer. In other words, his power within the social network warped the nature of his online social interactions.

The primatologist Robert Sapolsky has done some marvelous work on how our position within the hierarchy shapes our behavior. Here's a fascinating description of the effects of testosterone on monkey aggression:

Round up some male monkeys. Put them in a group together, and give them plenty of time to sort out where they stand with each other - affiliative friendships, grudges and dislikes. Give them enough time to form a dominance hierarchy, a linear ranking system of numbers 1 through 5. This is the hierarchical sort of system where number 3, for example, can pass his day throwing around his weight with numbers 4 and 5, ripping off their monkey chow, forcing them to relinquish the best spots to sit in, but, at the same time, remembering to deal with numbers 1 and 2 shit-eating obsequiousness.

Hierarchy in place, it's time to do your experiment. Take the third-ranking monkey and give him some testosterone. Inject a ton of it into him...give him enough testosterone to grow antlers and a beard on every neuron in the brain. And, no surprise, when you check the behavioral data, it turns out that he will probably be participating in more aggressive interactions than before.

So even though small fluctuations in the levels of the hormone don't seem to matter much, testosterone still causes aggression. But that would be wrong. Check out number 3 more closely. Is he now raining aggressive terror on any and all in the group, frothing in an androgenic glaze of indiscriminate violence. Not at all. He's still judiciously kowtowing to numbers 1 and 2, but has simply become a total bastard to numbers 4 and 5.

I don't meant to suggest that Twitter is just like a primate dominance hierarchy, or that an injection of testosterone would lead people to abuse those with fewer followers. Instead, the elegance of Sapolsky's experiment is its demonstration of the all encompassing influence of the social hierarchy itself. Even a massive injection of hormone can't alter the way we experience the pecking order, which is why we talk differently to our boss than to our assistant, or why we're more solicitous of a rich, powerful friend that we are to an unemployed friend. I hate myself for even writing that sentence, but it's all too often true: we're a craven species, obsessed with status for the sake of status. And that pursuit of status shapes so many of our interactions, both in person and online.

Now here's where the digital social platforms make a bad situation even worse. Because they exquisitely measure our place within the network, we know exactly who the powerful people are; it's like high-school, except on a massive scale. (Reading the comments on many popular blogs reminds me the sycophants who surrounded the popular kids in 9th grade. It's all applause and affirmation, with every criticism shouted down.) Furthermore, the quantification of our social world inevitably inspires a certain kind of social anxiety. We want to be moving upwards, to have more friends and more followers and more connections. (Such are the burdens of being a social primate.) It's a ridiculous endeavor, of course, and I chastise myself every time I check my twitter count, but it's also a deeply seated instinct. I'm just a male monkey with broadband.

One last point: Because these online tools collapse the space between people - we can experience a kind of intimacy with perfect strangers, learning about their breakfast routines and airport delays - we bring ourselves into "competition" with a far larger group. We're suddenly comparing ourselves with people we've never met, and never will. While this pseudo-closeness can be fun, I think it also comes with some anxiety inducing side-effects. David Hume, in A Treatise on Human Nature, makes a really important point:

It is not a great disproportion between ourselves and others which produces envy, but on the contrary, a proximity. A common soldier bears no envy for his general compared to what he will feel for his sergeant or corporal; nor does an eminent writer meet with as much jealousy in common hackney scribblers, as in authors that more nearly approach him. A great disproportion cuts off the relation, and either keeps us from comparing ourselves with what is remote from us or diminishes the effects of the comparison.

My worry is that our online social platforms both magnify our hierarchies (by measuring our friends, followers, links, etc.) and erase social distance, so that we suddenly find ourselves in the same monkey cage with a far larger number of monkeys. And that's why I wish there was a popular social platform that didn't measure anything. I doubt such a platform will ever exist - we clearly want the explicit hierarchies, even when they drive us crazy - but it sure would be a relief.


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You make some really good comments. I really admire your perspective and knowledge of philosophy. I hope you check out my blog at ... and follow my tweets at ...

But seriously, nice job tying Hume, the effect of testosterone within a social structure, and social media in one post.

Anecdotal example: I was chastised by a leading member of my loose twitter community. It really upset me for several days.

By Colin Matheson (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink

I could give you a ballpark figure for how many facebook friends I have, but I've never found it a source of pride or shame. I couldn't tell you then # of friends of any of my friends, although when I see someone with very few, who is just starting out, I do think about connecting them with others, so I guess I pay some attention.
I think twitter lends itself to this though. I like that I have more followers than people I follow. I don't know what that says about me, although I can second the wish it said "listeners" rather than "followers".
I never thought of it as about hierarchy, although it is, in some senses. But I'm not as highly attuned to hierarchy as some, and much of what I do pay attention to is the result of being badly burned.

I have been an early adopter of many computer, digital and www phenomena but have avoided the social networks (though I did use some internet dating / mating sites a few years after my husband died).
I prefer real live interactions with others, and stretch those via emails; I have been a letter writer since the 70's. I appreciate the advantages of the social (including family and work aspects as well) networks but wonder HOW LONG will people be able to maintain the tremendous number of connections they make.
My long term friendships have been sustained by something different from daily activity reports... indeed, I once commented that friendship is what remains when time and space are no longer shared. Interestingly, I travel quite a bit and reportedly have stories to tell, yet wonder who really needs to know. Perhaps no one needs to even read this comment.

By Elizabeth Nolan (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink

I suspect that it's probably weirdest for people in the middle of these public/private hierarchies. (Okay, that may not be true, but that's where I am, so that's what I'll talk about.)

These effects aren't just quantitative. For example, I write for what you'd probably call a midlist blog that occasionally gets picked up by much bigger blogs. Sometimes my Twitter links get picked up by these blogs, too. Sometimes, though, for stretches not much happens -- I don't get linked to or retweeted, I don't get new followers or "follow friday" links. It can be pretty shocking how dejected you can feel, to be ignored by complete strangers, whether "above" or "below" you on the status/fame/follower hierarchy.

The other issue which periodically pops up is the gap between a user's in-network status and their status IRL (in real life). I'll find myself following-back a user who is Professor of This or Editor of That, only to discover that they're a really terrible social-network user: either absent and vapid or grouchy and self-absorbed. Or, to be less critical, Interesting people who just are not adept at the medium. Yet you can find yourself reluctant to drop them (even though, thankfully, Twitter and FB, etc. don't notify you, "X is no longer your friend"), because you might benefit from the association with their status in real life. It's not purely transitive (and doesn't seem really to work at all the other way), but it's close.

I agree that this should be cause for concern. Not enough consideration is given to the social consequences of how status information is stored and made available.

But what can we do to flatten hierachies if the way information is stored and made available conforms to genetic and biological traits that evolve much slower than culture, much less friendships? Becoming more conscious of these influences is a first step. Publicly committing to particular cultural norms that relate to how status is communicated is another.

...and in fact nearly every informal institution -- from fashion to country club membership -- can be understood in these terms.

One particularly important norm to cultivate in a world with perfect (digital) memory of past relations -- forgivness.

Thanks for this. We talk so much about the affordances of the digital landscape, but -- with the exception of the occasional moral panic -- don't talk nearly enough about the way in can reproduce, deploy, or amplify existing structural determinants and criteria of value/power. Especially considering that it's precisely the tension between the affordances and the limitations/dangers that make the space interesting.

Your piece also bring focus on the sort of unexamined problem at the center of all this, which is that the digitization and display of our network fundamentally privileges the quantifiable aspects of our social relations as the markers of their quality and value.

I'm not sure how I fit into your suppositions, but I am someone who not only doesn't care how many "followers" (yes, unfortunate word) or "friends" someone has, I am if anything suspicious of those with high numbers. It doesn't prove anything valuable to me in the slightest. In fact, I automatically feel an instinctive affinity for anyone I come across who has a "real-life" number of Facebook friends (say, 50 to 100), while feel distance and lack of interest in someone (not a public figure) with hundreds more than that. As for Twitter, numbers are ludicrous. If one has 6,000 followers and follow 6,000 people, what exactly does that mean except that one has spent an inordinate amount of time clicking one's mouse?

2chan,4chan and other imageboards don't measure anything. It can be liberating, if you're interested in wading in images of cats, dogs and giant robots.

Specific hierarchies serve their specific purposes. Judge the importance of your place in any particular hierarchy accordingly. For instance, how important is a high perch in the hierarchy of purposeful twits?

Don't forget the subtle stress and anxiety from NOT using social network sites. I hear a lot about Facebook, Twitter, and the like, but am completely baffled as to why anyone would spend so much time & energy using them. The ratio of usefulness to time spent seems way off to me, almost insane. That said, I find myself feeling more like a loser/space alien for not being a part of these high-volume, intensely hierarchical personal update collectives, even though I actually lead a rather happy, loving, successful life.

But there's still sense that at 35, I've been left behind. Like I'm stuck walking as them new-fangled auto-mo-biles are zipping by. That my measly handful of REAL friends somehow doesn't amount to much in the New World Order.

By davidavid (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink

Part of the problem is what you have in most social networks is systems designed to get you to spend more time using them, rather than supporting the kind of social network you want to have. Further, you have people making decisions about the course of these social networks who have dogmatic views about the nature of social networking and what would be "good" for their users. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, with his initially unpopular innovations that serve to make more and more information available to your friends.
I feel similarly ambivalent about some of the social networking, but I don't think that the problems you mention are necessarily endemic to social networking, but rather the particular social networks we have. For example, I think facebook and twitter could actually be much more sophisticated in applying (or letting you apply) what they know about how you interact with your friends. Facebook knows a lot more than who you are friends with (frequency of contact, direction of contact, liking, comments, etc) (see for some of their work). Facebook has made a few decisions to make it a lot harder for you to make a structure to your "cage", but they could make it so that you could make it resemble a "village" where you put your actual friends closer, so you hear them more often, and have a set of "fences" between other neighbors. Instead, it insists that we should value all our "friends" equally. I would think that for most of us, rather than thinking about social hierarchies, we have social circles (work, family, school friends, hobby friends). We are likely not in the same place in the social hierarchy in each of these places, and so we would like to change how we interact in each in the virtual world, just as we do in the real world. As it currently stands, we don't have that capability, so we get the lowest common denominator of conversations from most people, most of the time.

Dear Jonah, I like your observataions and especially your personal feelings on this subject. Just to add, there's good news in our genes as well. We have an equally strong instinct to link as well as rank. I don't mean link in a faceless way on the internet. My definition of linking includes love, but milder stuff as well: It is the desire to be near someone (from sometimes to often), get to know more (or all) about them, and meet their needs IF you can. (And the internet is used for that too, fortunately.)

If you go back and watch primates, they spend equal amounts of time grooming each other and hanging out together, and grooming pairs are often not equals. Same with any other social mammal. Some individuals are extraverts, some introverts, some highly sensitive, some not, but social animals need and like to be affectionate.

It starts with Mom. (What makes us mammals are those mammmaries, and oxytocin, what makes the milk to flow, is as powerful as testosterone in its way.) We start our life and live it in groups of at least two (with a few exceptions like tigers, who need to spread out to find food). There's a hierarchy, sure, but what stands out is the attachments, the linking, as I define it. (Note linking is one instinct, about "special" others, and altrusim is another--Sober and Wilson, Unto Others.)

The fact is, however, that ranking only makes those on top feel good. So here's to more linking in our lives!

Anyway, your blog was pointed out to me by someone reading a book of mine that just came out, The Undervalued Self. Naming my book here is said in a spirit of linking,really, not ranking. It's all about just that, ranking and linking--an important element being that we will always be vulnerable to defeat and "low" (compared to who?)self-esteem when we are stuck in ranking mode. Here's to linking. Elaine

By Elaine Aron (not verified) on 15 Mar 2010 #permalink

With all this worry, simple question with X thousand followers, friends, RSS feeds everywhere, email explosion, Web sites to view. Why do we have "IRL" any more. You sadly have no analog life if you truthfully attempt to follow this digital torrent. Oh an watch out if your boss finds out you may go bye you better hope they have no WebSense product in house documenting an aggressive case of online induced ADHD

daviddaivd sums it up for many but folks should stop the worrying they aren't missing much. Likely a single really good friend (or significant other) can outweigh follow count numbers any day of the week. They tend to be the one who is really there for you, bails you out, loans you their truck, etc. I consider playing with kids is worth 1000s of followers...better use of time likely produce a better outcome for the kids too...but if you still care problem solved. :-)

Everyone uses these social networks differently, if at all. I have no use for Twitter -- tried it and found it singularly uninformative and annoying.

Facebook is different. Before commenting I did a quick computation and found that 86% of my Facebook friends are people I know and at least occasionally interact with IRL. Of those, the least likely ones I will interact with are the 5% who are old HS acquaintances I've found on Facebook. Of the rest, 59% are relatives and 21% are close friends of family.

For me, the most disturbing thing about Facebook is that it seems a majority of my relatives are hooked on Farmville.

I hear you on this. Yet I think in some ways Twitter, anyway, is actually more egalitarian, for it seems that it's far easier there for people who lack high status in the regular world to connect and become influential with higher status/better connected people mainly through the quality of their communications. On Twitter, people tend to come to one's attention via the cleverness, originality, or other value of their tweets (and yes, via the status of whoever RT'd them to your attention; still); they gain a certain value meritoriously before you take the time to check them and see how well or poorly they're connected. (I'm not really this mercenary, just adopting the terms of your scenario. We ARE all social, hierarchical primates, after all...) A smart undergrad tweeting from some backwater has a far better chance to win the attention and favor of a prof or CEO or Big Geek or whatnot via Twitter than through the real world. And as they do, their Twitter stock will rise.

So while I share your unease with how blatantly status is quantified and measured in Twitter, I think perhaps status is a more fluid, accessible thing on Twitter, and, in a relative sense, perhaps more based on merit and contributions (in a very limited realm, but still) than in the Real World.

"Reading the comments on many popular blogs reminds me the sycophants who surrounded the popular kids in 9th grade. It's all applause and affirmation, with every criticism shouted down."

At the risk of sounding like aforementioned shit-eating sycophant trying to curry favor with the top dog: this is absolutely true! It's exciting to stumble across this, as it demystifies a phenomenon that has irritated me to no end.

So many online communities are nothing but a circle-jerk of fawning supplicants, all trying to feed off the power and popularity of the resident alphas.

In communities that orbit around prominent personalities, any sort of critical idea is shot down with irrational fervor by the minions, in a bid to ingratiate themselves by defending the alpha and to preserve their place in the social hierarchy.

It's a shame, because often the personality around which the cult forms is a decent person with good ideas--they're just surrounded by social parasites.

I don't experience this as much on Facebook, but I limit my network there to people I know IRL or otherwise consider a close and personal friend. There is little jockeying for position--it's mostly a forum for staying in touch and sharing ephemeral thoughts.

But the hierarchical behavior is certainly the norm for interaction with communities of strangers. I've been on the receiving end, too--it's depressing to feel like people are only commenting or otherwise acknowledging you in some attempt to climb up the ladder.

What's funny is that this biologically-rooted behavior doesn't really make sense online: in a great deal of our online interactions, it doesn't matter if Joe from Nebraska thinks you're awesome--he's never going to be in a position to do anything for you, nor you for him. Probably the majority of people most of us interact with online will never have any significant role in our lives. And yet here we all are, struggling to get ahead with joe234 and john_q_public.

A few days ago (after I got high) I noticed that I was constantly checking if people left comments on my facebook status. As if it was really something worth while which in this state seemed odd.

Next I noticed a nifty +1 icon that is displayed on my facebook page when one of my 'friends' gets connected to a new 'friend'. Like a leveling system in a game. Then it struck me. Facebook is abusing our basic social needs. They are engineering their website to ensure competition and therefor engagement which results in more visits.

On a broader note: as more knowledge about the workings of the human brain is acquired, we will be bombarded with better engineered marketing, products, websites, you name it. This bothers me.

A few people with this knowledge will be able to 'trick' people into almost anything without the 'victims' noticing it.

Maybe I'm being paranoid. Don't smoke weed more than once a week tops so I can't blame the weed. ;)

Most followers are courtesy follows.
Unfollow everybody and see how many stick around to read your unmissable small talk.
You will be left with a few real world friends and possibly anyone that fancies you (providing you haven't huffed them with the unfollow).
It's very very easy to be popular online, no matter how social inept you are in the real world.

If it will make you feel better, I'll unfriend and unfollow you. I've decided to hold audition for more "friends" on Spacebook in an attempt to increase my social relevance.

Hi Jonah,

I think many people are aware of this behavior and feel anxious because they feel anxious about the numbers. I've seen people go through a deliberate process of REDUCING their friend lists on Facebook to only those they actually feel close to.

Working in web marketing and social media as I do, it's literally my job to ensure that someone is getting followers or traffic. It can be soul stripping sometimes, but I aspire to connect by quality, not just numbers. I measure "quality" by connecting people who will matter to each other.

For better or worse, this is the world we live in now, and I think people are seeing how absurd the numbers are while at the same time feeling a prisoner to them.

Perhaps as online spaces become more like real world interactions, numbers will begin to matter less than finding value in the interactions.

Interacting on-line is bad for the brain, according to the authors of the book The General Theory of Love, a neurologically inclined treatise. The idea is that while our brains evolved to take in a whole range of information about a person (their facial expression, body language, the inflection of their speech, likely their aroma or pheromones, etc.) then that's what the brain needs, and that's what leaves a person feeling replete after a face-to-face conversation.

On social networking sites, there is none of that, and your brain is like a hungry lab rat frustratedly drinking saccharine-sweetened water in hopes of some sustenance. There is no neurological(and thus no vital, authentic emotional) 'sustenance' on social network sites, which is maybe why people seek more and more 'friends' or followers, or what have you. It is not that they are seeking a good spot on the hierarchy, it's that they hope get what their brains have evolved to need (crave!).

There is no genuine connection on social sites, for just this reason. It's surface and meaningless, for the most part, unless you are sharing some sort of useful information -- but you are never really sharing yourself.

By zephyr haversack (not verified) on 16 Mar 2010 #permalink

1. our tendencies never really fundamentally change - high school is always around us in degrees.
2. FB is a commercial entity and the widget it produces is emotional response - isn't high school the place with the most emotional ups and downs inherently? what better model to exploit for maximum profit?
3. the US is the home of statistics and demographic data collection for the purpose of marketing useless products. no wonder the products of this culture inherently feature comparative data collection.

the world over, via superior internet communications, US corporate culture is training all to worship data, and one of the rituals we are taught is self-promotion - to maximize profits... and shareholder value - full circle.

there are idiots like me who are unable to buy into the culture of sheen over substance. i'm sure i'll be obsolete soon, survival of the fittest and all... unless there is merit to the thought that we really do have more value than what numbers tell about us - after all, our capability to capture numbers is finite, and our data models (despite reaching Pbyte levels and so on) will forever be unable to define us.

In the personality and individual differences literature there are measures of social dominance orientation (SDO). There are some extremely rough twitter apps that aim at measuring "your twitter personality" based on the words in your tweets. (I use many qualifiers, so probably would get measured as low SDO.) I wonder to what degree persons of similar SDO tend to affiliate on twitter.
For what it's worth,
And in the following recent paper by Daniel Fessler and others, there are four hits on SDO.

By Richard Harper (not verified) on 16 Mar 2010 #permalink

I think this is exactly why I just go about by a number of names and don't connect them together. There's a huge freedom in not being known that has nothing to do with not being accountable for one's words, but everything to do with not having to prove oneself constantly.

I think FB is extremely effective at commercially exploiting status-striving behaviors. (I tried just one FB app, "Knighthood". To get any significant amount of points to spend you pretty much had to buy hundreds of dollars of commercial products through FB advertisers.) Twitter is so minimalist in comparison that it makes status-displays much more difficult. So likely there is already a fairly strong self-selection process in terms of Social Dominance Orientation between who is mostly active on FB versus Twitter.

By Richard Harper (not verified) on 16 Mar 2010 #permalink

So many good points in this article. The other day I noticed my number of FB friends had dropped and freaked out, wondering who had deleted me for a couple of days (then I remembered that I was the one who had performed a recent cull)

As far as Twitter goes, I'm not particularly impressed by the number of followers someone has, and I don't follow that many people - I'd rather cut out the noise of social media as best possible. Then again, I notice those with less followers have less to say...I wonder, is this the reason they have few followers or BECAUSE they know they're not 'talking' to that many people?

Aaaaaand are the 'courtesy followers' mentioned by Loci really courtesy followers? Call me an idealist or idiot or whatever, but I think that Twitter houses more sophisticated users who are interested in creating discussion and conversation within their little (or large) twitterverses and would follow back based on how useful/entertaining they found the other person's tweets.

I'm part of a particular community in Twitter and it's easy, and quite hilarious, to see the more influential users that everyone is falling over themselves to impress. And ek_ladki is absolutely on the money about high school.

One thing about human monkeys is they have consciousness. As many have here expressed , we suspected there was something fishy about our emotional ups and downs, triumphs and defeats as we communicated or became intimate with those we'd never meet, you have brought it to consciousness. With consciousness one can address it and decide to continue on in the current as a "monkey in a cage with too many monkeys" might, or notice it and adjust. I know I look at my stats on flickr as some sort of affirmation. I know I feel badly when I comment and comment and get no reply, and talk to myself about simply satisfying my own aesthetic or compassionate or intellectual interests. Then I feel bad when someone else gets responded too every time. It's hard to grow out of high school and it takes continued application of consciousness and will. Again, you've pointed out part of the why. Of course, without the reward of the payoff of numbers, these vehicles for social interaction would certainly be less popular.
Funny, this is an aspect of "high school" I always hated.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
((even in the world of twitter))

-from Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann

By Quercus Barr (not verified) on 17 Mar 2010 #permalink

i think that the technology has allowed people to reach through the various dimensions/categories (friends from the past, present work friends, family, professional friends, party friends, etc.) of their lives in an instant yet we haven't yet developed the emotional capacity to handle it all.

Call me a dweeb but when I signed up for FB, I reconnected with all these people from my youth, and with them came all of my unresolved issues from that particularly painful period in my life (adolescence, anyone?). They were wrought relationships. And having them part of a "conversation" along side someone I currently work with, my aunt, and and someone I never really liked yet lacked the balls to "deny" a friendship to all the while knowing that there were 100+ other people reading it. oy. it was overwhelming for little ol' me. I promptly deleted said FB account.

I use twitter now to follow the Economist solely because I can't afford the subscription. I have no followers because I have no desire to say anything.

Facebook and Twitter shows the entire world that I'm a boring introvert instead of allowing me to hide my shame in secret.

I wouldn't be so quick to assume that many followers equate to a 'powerful' person in a 'hierarchy'.

Full disclosure: I don't have a Facebook page.

Second disclosure: Twice in the last month I've been solicited to be the 'friend' of people whose names I don't even remotely recognize. (I simply trash these emails, unopened.)

But I have to wonder: What is this, a new kind of phishing? A recruitment of clicks for 'friends' that amount only to email addresses? In other words ,perhaps the numbers will increasingly be mere lies/fabrication in the future.

So I wouldn't get too worried about followers. The strength, as well as the number, of connections matter. Better a decent conversation with one, than a babble with many.

Red the post discussing 'knighthood' on Facebook (hat tip Richard Harper) - exploitation of people's social anxieties for financial gain is nothing new. Over 60 years ago, the 'Arthur Murray' chain of dance studios became infamous for high-pressure sales tactics employed during the course of 'dance lessons.' Particularly vulnerable were lonely widows who, after initially signing up for a few lessons in the hope of getting some companionship, found themselves pressured to buy more and more lessons, then 'lifetime memberships' and then multiple lifetime memberships. A few, having gone through their life savings, sued the studio for fraud.

(See: Audrey E. VOKES, Appellant, v. ARTHUR MURRAY, INC., a corporation, J. P. Davenport, d/b/a Arthur Murray School of Dancing, Appellees ; No. 67-476; Court of Appeals of Florida, Second District;
212 So. 2d 906; 1968 Fla. App. LEXIS 5388; 28 A.L.R.3d 1405
July 31, 1968)

As Facebook participation is free of charge, the analogy is not a strict one, but the post on obtaining 'knighthood' after buying products from advertisers certainly raised eyebrows, given the site's promotion as a 'social' network.

I got over this a few years ago when I checked out of the whole social networking scene (for the most part). I have a facebook, but I only use it once a week. I don't use twitter. I have a gmail account, which I use all the time, but not for Buzz. I read a lot of blogs, but barely ever comment.

What do you do with your time?, you might ask. Well, I am now playing the Egyptian oud (a fretless guitar) and I am re-learning Arabic, which I had stopped studying when I felt I "didn't have the time". I'd say I am more satisfied with my life than I have ever been.

Having a REAL hobby has made a huge difference in my quality of life. When I think about how many away messages I checked on AIM or how many times I hit F5 in facebook, it makes me sick.

My suggestion? We should all try to get real hobbies.

Good article. It's amazing how much time you monkeys will spend ... on what is purely the ILLUSION of social association and interaction. Twitter is the new boob tube. Monkey see - monkey doo doo.

I put my dog on FB and Twitter. They can learn as much about him as they want to, and he's way more popular than I am!

I guess I'm another one of the "boring introverts" - though I have yet to 'connect' with a single one of my old high school associates. As the kids these days say; what/ev. I tend to like posting photos, links, videos, to my FB, never really thought too much about whether there was any kind of pecking order. (hence the non-connection to anyone from my high school days).

But I was disappointed the other day, when I stepped out into my back yard, and smelled the blossoms on my plum tree, and wished I could upload that and post a link for my friends.

There are people who can have a horrible life if it is believed that being an introvert is boring, that you have nothing to offer, that there is inherent shame in introversion. Of course, the socially minded people will attempt to convince you of it.
It took me three divorces to find peace with myself, and I have many years of pleasure, enrichment, and just plain satisfaction ahead of me. I have no need to disguise that on FB, Twitter, or LinkedIn. I appreciate the many comments I have read here from those who have a similar awareness.

As a social media newbie last year, I became a Twitter follower junkie, following any and all in the hopes of a reciprocal follow. The numbers continue to rise, but its like wandering the mall with all of these people I don't know. So, with FB, I learned to keep it close and personal; find friends that are ACTUAL friends and declining invitations from anonymous folks. Reading my FB updates now actually means something because I know these people!

even for digital natives, we still worry more about our status offline than online. its whether we have the real world credentials, gigs, dating life that still matter, even though the expression of these (in our minds and online) has shrunk to 160 characters.

Don't worry, all men are just monkeys... and not "men" as in people, but men as in men (not women).... and now you boys have broadbands ;)

I dunno... I don't compare Facebook friend counts much. Last time I looked at Myspace, they were still doing the top-N friends on the page, and it was up to you to sort the friends. I can see that being a lot more competitive thing, especially considering the stereotype Myspace user.

Some groups and pages on Facebook make a big deal about reaching large numbers of fans, but I think that's a different thing. You create a group or a page to attract people to it, so the whole 1,000,000 fan initiative thing is little more than marketing.

I think the whole issue is analogous to comparing yourself to other guys at the urinal. Sure, you could probably get away with doing it, but what's the point?

10,242 followers on Twitter at last count, and yes I had to become socially promiscuous, at times, with my keyboard to achieve it. But there is some good to be had from that.

Sapolsky is in my top 10 of relevant scientists whose opinions and insights I let influence my thinking and my actions. The social status observations are accurate and arguably they explain the basis upon which we have thrived above all other species. We co-operate to overcome bigger issues than we can handle ourselves.

Richard Dawkins and William Hamilton (only one of which is also in my top 10) elevate and explain Darwinism's that our genes act in selfishness so that we can proper as individuals. In carrying out acts of selfishness it often requires that we take on altruistic traits so that our genes thrive by helping others or through enabling others to thrive at our expense. This can manifest in social co-operation such as allowing status to exists within our numerous tribes, knowing that we may be down the pecking order but our children (our genes) will probably survive and thrive by our complicit act in elevating others.

I use Twitter to share information and for that I have 'followers' or real people that are interested and send me comments. I use this feedback to affirm or otherwise my thoughts on a subject with people that have similar interests or gain an interest in a subject I am passionate about. This feedback happens on an international scale that I could not achieve by going to my local bar and having a conversation with people who have insights that are derived from sources similar to mine. In the corporate world they would call this market research and firms invest their scarce resources in directions according to the outcomes of such market research.

In the social networking world I call this a discussion that enables me to move a subject forward and it is, to me, a way that I can assist society on a scale much bigger than I could otherwise achieve. My selfish goal is to influence people to consider fact based arguments on subjects of importance and to question opinions that might be biased, narrow or misleading. By encouraging people to question issues, such as lobbying by food companies, my aim is to help my children live in a world where misleading health claims on food packaging or irresponsible mortgage lending doesn't affect their future welfare.

The happy co-incidence with my 10,000 followers is that many people want to join the various conversations with each other and new networks are created. It's an evolving hippocampus thing, really.

I agree with comments on the darker side of online social network and the influences it may have on individuals self-esteem or even the real danger that it can assist the demise into online addiction.

However, there needs to be a balanced and even a data driven argument about the pros and cons of allowing ourselves to be electronically connected to each others thoughts.

By edSanDiego (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink

The business of business has been the always been the same ....

Change the customer to fit your product ! How a social network site does it is no different than , say, jeans, or cigarettes etc

Nice article.

By K Y Ashok Murthy (not verified) on 21 Mar 2010 #permalink

A good point, especially about the sycophantic nature of some blogs. My advice to you if you are interested in this is to start hanging out with some parrots, who are non-hierarchal by nature. In my opinion, you have to be around some intelligent non-hierarchal creatures for a while to fully realize how deeply embedded our hierarchal nature is.

Maybe it isn't about a giant high school or status... maybe it's for the same reason you became a writer/journalist and some of us write blogs.... maybe it's the need to feel like we're heard. The need to feel like our ideas matter. If a retweet from Demi Moore makes 1,500,000 people get a chance to be exposed to your ideas... that's exciting. That makes someone who before only had 20 people that cared to "listen" to them feel like, at least for a day, like their ideas matter too.

The face of social networking has changed completely. Everyone in my life has a facebook, for the most part, and they all keep track of their 'friends' on facebook. People may look at how many friends someone has on facebook and just assume that they are popular, when in reality they could just be a stalker who suggests everyone to be their friend. People open up their lives too much by putting everything on the web. Even I am guilty of looking at someone who doesn't have many friends on facebook and assuming they do not actually have many real friends, although i know that isn't true all the time. We all want to surround ourselves with people who make us better but some people choose to surround themselves with people who will make their appearance look better. The number of friends you have on facebook and facebook itself does become an obsession sometimes. People are obsessed with letting the world know about their lives. Some people tend to be able to kiss up to people easier on facebook, get in fights on facebook, and stalk people on facebook. We all do worry about how we compare to the rest of the world and how our lives are not as good as the next person. Hopefully people will begin to realize that life is not measured by how many comments you get on facebook or how many friends you have.

Great post.

Keep writing about what's going on with the brain with the social networks. I just can't learn enough to figure it out.

OK, it's been like 15 minutes since I checked Facebook, gotta go...


I had the exact same problem as MRS. This is why I avoid all social networking sites, too many demons in my past. It's just too awkward denying/ignoring friend requests of close relatives that I have never enjoyed socializing with and yet I'm obliged to meet again.

keep writing about what's going on with the brain with the social network.Yet i don't know that how many followers to me?
and what happended? And your article contains lots of useful data.

I have a facebook account. It keeps me busy with all the applications, games and online shopping. I became stressed, maybe, because of people who add me as their friends. Technically, i don't know them. I used to received maximum of 10 invites a day. hmmmm...But as majority, I so loved Facebook. Oww, its another way of communicating with my husband abroad.

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I got into the facebook thing a little too much checking it alot and taking my focus away from my work. In todays world social status has never been more valued and facebook is just a another platform that can create pressure to live up to expectations. Great post just found your site and this is a great article for me to start.

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