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Evolution and Social Media

When I was about 4 or 5, I was at a family function and asked a question to my dad. This question would be the most important question I would ever ask, but it would take me 25 years to figure out why. As the 4 or 5 year-old me scanned the room, my eyes kept coming back to my parents seated beside me. I would look at them, dart across the room to find another relative and then glance back at my parents. I understood that we were all related, but didn’t understand what that meant. So, in my precocious way, I asked my dad, “Dad, will I have to wear glasses when I grow up?”

“Well, Josh, do both of your parents wear glasses?” he smiled as he asked in return.

“Uh-huh,” I answered, surveying my parents.

“Do all of your grandparents and aunts and uncles wear glasses?” he continued.

“Yeah,” I responded, starting to put the logic in place.

“So, what do you think?” he challenged.

“I think I’m screwed,” would have been the funny answer, but at 4 or 5, I don’t think I said that. I probably answered with some type of positive grunt and then promptly ran off to do things any normal 4 or 5 year-old would do; go play with some toy.

As I grew up, I did, in fact, have to wear glasses. Indeed, since 1988, I have no idea what it’s like to see an alarm clock in the morning. The first thing I do when I wake up is put on my glasses. The last thing I do before I go to bed is take off my glasses. I see the world (or more accurately don’t see the world) differently than those who aren’t visually challenged. In short, my reality is different from someone who has 20/20 vision.

But the question that arises is, if I need to wear glasses (like the estimated 50% of the population who suffer from myopia, or nearsightedness) to function – to survive – how come I exist?

Somewhere along the evolutionary track, an ancestor of mine had really poor eyes, yet was able to survive and mate. But how? If, as evolution states, we reverted to our fight or flight instincts when in trouble, how did my ancestors, who probably couldn’t see very well, know to flee or fight?

This is a question that has troubled me for quite some time. However, the more I thought about the question of how, the more I realized that an answer can come through looking at the evolution of social media.

Social media, just like my poor eyesight, is a by-product of a larger system. Both are spandrels (the space between the outer-circle when fit into a square or rectangle) that don’t help nor hinder evolution: they just exist. Poor eye sight probably didn’t affect early humans because other senses, working in tandem, helped the species grow.

Social media, also, is a by-product of two converging evolutionary factors: technology (the ability to make our lives easier) and democracy (how people govern themselves, not how someone governs people). Social media is where it is because a large group of people figured out that a) technology – especially communications technology – is a great conduit of delivering messages and b) in order for their voices to be heard, they needed to own the content. Things happen at the right time. Kind of like when apes came out of the trees.

Social Media has evolved exponentially in the past couple of years because of technology. To understand the evolutionary process, let’s very quickly trace the path of how we’re able to tweet and Facebook (yes, they are not only social networking sites, but also active verbs).

ARPANET, or Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was created in the late 1960s to prevent the fall of capitalism. Well, actually, it was developed to prevent the cut of communications in the event of a communist attack on the U.S. So instead of message transmissions that crisscrossed the continental United States (cutting one would render the rest useless), ARPANET created a communications system that looked a bit more like this, allowing for line-breakage to occur and not affect the communications system (picture from The Computer History Museum)

In 1971, the first email was sent and 2 years later, FTP was defined as we know it. In 1980, the world was introduced to Usenet, a rudimentary version of the Web.
And in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee developed a network-based implementation of the hypertext concept, a World Wide Web, if you will. This was the push into a greater universe.

The next 15 years saw an explosion – AOL, Yahoo!, Google, AIM, IM, student/corporate email, a boom, a bubble and a burst – and finally, after some fast-forwarding, a Web site called Friendster grabbed a hold of the early twentysomethings.

While Friendster was not THE first social network (SixDegrees.com was, technically, the first), the service soared in 2002/2003. Naturally, they had their technical issues, as technicians were (are?) trying to figure out how to handle the massive influx of users.

Then, in 2003, MySpace launched and thus the Cold War of SNS (social networking sites) was begun. 2006 brought Facebook to the masses and was also the year a small site called Twitter was launched.

So, in 2009, the triumvirate of MySpace, Twitter and Facebook now hold the reins. The diffusion of innovations of social networks has spread to the masses and is the most recent rung on the social networking evolutionary ladder.

These sites have entered their golden age because a large amount of people deemed these services necessary for the growth of the Web and to a different extent, the growth of our society. But these sites could not have happened (technology notwithstanding) at any other time, as our predecessors – politically, technologically, socially, culturally – were not ready for the amount of information that gets passed from user to user.

Granted, social networks have been a human characteristic for time immemorial but the advancement of thought that is siphoned through Twitter could never have happened in a homogenous state, such as a medieval bar or church (original precursors to Internet-based social networks). Adaptation to the environment not only holds true for species evolution, but also for social networks.

My ancestors — who weren’t quite blind, but definitely couldn’t see — were able to survive because they had the bandwidth to recognize the information their eyes sent them. Something moving on the ground and can’t see it clearly? Run. Something moving in the sky and can’t see it clearly? Hide.

I’m sure when I have kids, I will entertain a similar conversation about wearing glasses. I’m equally sure my kids will have such an advanced knowledge-base of social networks/online communities that they’ll make fun of me for still Tweeting (in whatever form it will be) or Facebooking.

What do you think the future holds?

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


One thought on “Evolution and Social Media

  1. Josh, no sweat, your kids will have a laser op to correct their eyesight so no need for glasses for them.As for the evolutionary /genetic selection in the case of myopia I believe there is some research data to show that kids /people with myopia have higher than average IQ. This would imply that in the past people with myopia were not required so much to d mundane tasks that required good eyesight at a distance- they were reading books so it was not such a handicap!

    Posted by Rebel with Cause | July 28, 2009, 2:29 am

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