There was a time when, in order to express your views on anything more than a very local and intimate scale, you would have needed access to printing and publishing resources. The arrival of radio and then television made inroads into this territory and further expanded the field to introduce people to each other on a larger scale. The internet, of course, has revolutionised that.
When King Henry VII returned to Britain to claim the throne in what became the Battle of Bosworth he arrived at Milford Haven and it took four days to get the news to Nottingham. If that was happening today we would have it tweeted instantly and by multiple sources, the information would travel globally and we would have access to images, live film footage and more even before he got his feet wet coming ashore. We have come to accept (in fact some people now have known nothing but) a world in which the individual, the citizen, is a publisher in his or her own right and has ready access to a potential global audience.
This also translates to the micro scale. Personally, people now have a profile that extends far beyond their immediate family, their school and work colleagues and their neighbourhood. Social media means that we engage in dialogue on a scale previously undreamed of. As a child I knew people who had pen-pals; the exotic concept of knowing someone who lived elsewhere on the planet and developing correspondence with them seemed extraordinary; for me it never seemed workable because of the pace – I wanted conversation as a cut-and-thrust interchange rather than writing my contribution and waiting six weeks for it to arrive with the recipient then another six weeks for the response to make its way back to me. The internet, again, has changed that. I can interact globally in the blink of an eye with people I hardly know, and that is what I have been thinking about lately – the knowing and the being known.
Facebook carelessly calls people “friends”, whilst Twitter calls them “followers”; blogs, perhaps more accurately, tend to refer to “subscribers” which takes me back to the original point about publishing. But what are followers and friends and subscribers? As we use social media to engage and to share, what is the nature of that engagement, of the sharing? Am I ‘known’ any better for being able to post brief snippets on Facebook and Twitter, for ‘liking’ videos on YouTube, for even posting lengthier blogs here?
It seems to me you get a slice of something, a psychological slide-show rather than an autobiography. I have ups and downs, but you would never know. You have ups and downs and I too am in darkness about them. My life is complex and multi-dimensional, but my social media presence is mono-dimensional and shallow. As access to this global platform increases, I wonder whether it has any real significance for me the person, for you the person. Are we known or are we screaming into the wind in an increasingly noisy world?
Robin Dunbar developed his theory of social connection from an anthropological perspective and arrived at what came to be known as Dunbar’s Number – around 150. This is the optimal number of people with whom one can be said to have a relationship in any real sense. It is governed not so much by social will but by neocortical development – there is a direct link across species between the size of the neocortex and the size of optimal social systems. His research is interesting and well-validated – we really can’t engage with larger numbers of people. This of course suggests that the social media drive to increase the number of ‘friends’ is simply a statistical vanity, a social impossibility that actually demeans the very nature and value of friendship. If 150 is approaching the maximum number of people with whom one has the evolutionary capacity to relate, what does it mean when someone has 3,000 friends on Facebook?
If we mistake this sort of connection with friendship, we run the risk of becoming extremely lonely. We could easily fall into the trap of believing we are known at a far deeper emotional and psychological level than we really are – we can have a false sense of attachment that, in times of crisis, evaporates to leave us stranded. That’s when real friends become evident – they are still present when the tide has washed away the casual bystanders – but if we delude ourselves into believing we are surrounded by friends because we have so many followers on twitter, so many friends on Facebook, we run the risk of a major problem when we really do need friends, when the world turns belly-up and we feel we can’t survive without a few strong allies.
I know you and you know me so far as we have encountered each other on this blog and maybe on other social media but really we know almost nothing and tonight – pre-dawn and prematurely awake – I understand the limitations. When day breaks and I wonder who I can reach out to, I realise that my neocortex hasn’t even begun to fulfil its promise in terms of Dunbar and I can say that the people who know me, who I know, can be counted on one hand – with fingers to spare.
I always have a frisson of delight when someone reads my blog, or ‘likes’ a Facebook post or comments on a tweet but I don’t get carried away, or at least I admonish myself not to. I just hope that, when the storms blow, I have a few friends still standing.