Is Social Media Making Us Less Human?

A few days ago, I read an essay in the New York Times by Robin Dunbar.

For those not familiar with Dunbar – Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford and author of a popular book – “How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks.”

I’ve long been interested in the theory behind Dunbar’s Number. There’s much debate concerning social networks and friendships. Some assert that we’re living in the Renaissance of social media and our potential to build friendships is better than ever. I believe we’re in the Dark Ages of social media.

Efforts to leverage technology to “beat” Dunbar’s Number are interesting and feasible, but is there a non-monetary cost to such efforts?

We can’t usually see our friends on social networks (except for their avatar), and that makes our conversations more detached and impersonal. We send @ messages on Twitter, post updates on Facebook, send emails and direct messages, and think of those activities as conversations. And they are indeed conversations – through these conversations, we learn, share, teach, laugh, discuss, debate, etc. As Dunbar wrote in the NYT op/ed piece:

Facebook and other social networking sites allow us to keep up with friendships that would otherwise rapidly wither away. And they do something else that’s probably more important, if much less obvious: they allow us to reintegrate our networks so that, rather than having several disconnected subsets of friends, we can rebuild, albeit virtually, the kind of old rural communities where everyone knew everyone else. Welcome to the electronic village.

But as we continue to become a society that spends increasing amounts of time looking at others through a computer, are we losing a bit of emotion with each conversation? In the quest for popularity, often measured in the number of followers and  friends, are we losing perspective? Are we more likely to forget when we’re online that harsh words and criticism can hurt others? And we quicker to judge others when we have the cloak of invisibility surrounding our online activities? And is this trend impacting our offline relationships too?

What do you think?

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