Why Social Networks Work, and Why They Will Be Around For A Long Time

Facebook just reached its 500 millionth member. At 200 million, it was the fifth largest country in the world. The digital social network came of age. In retrospect we could have seen it coming. After all, people are highly social animals and in the old days, the social network was the bench in front of the post office, the barber shop, the lodge, the bridge club, the bowling alley or the sewing circle. However digital social networks are a lot different.

In the old days, it took a lot of energy to participate in any social network. You had to join a group. Then you underwent a period where you were slowly accepted into the inner circles. Now, you sign up on Facebook and within a couple of weeks, you have close to a hundred friends that you haven't spoken to in years.

Facebook is redefining friendship. I once read a book from the self-styled "World's Greatest Salesman" named Joe Girard. The book was written quite a few years ago. In that book, he talks about how many people one person actually interacted with in a lifetime. The answer was 250. He derived that number from a funeral director in Detroit. It was the number of Mass cards or memorial cards that were printed when a person died.

Today, the average kid has over 400 "friends" on Facebook. Of course, they aren't actually "friends" the way their parents would call people friends, but these digital social networks are transformative. They are redefining what a friend means.

So why does a person named Abner Snodgrass who has BO and no SA suddenly find himself on Facebook with 400 friends? Why is Facebook so popular? Why wasn't it invented before? Why will Facebook be around for a long time?

The answer to these questions lie in social biology. The theory behind it is called the "Selfish Herd". People and animals herd together because an individual can easily take advantage of another's efforts without returning any effort of its own. The individuals band together and selfish compete for position within the group.

Facebook can let you stay in touch with minimal effort. You post your status and inner thoughts and it saves you writing letters or emails to individuals. And people can respond with one keystroke by hitting the "Like" button. It is the lazy way to being a social animal. You expend minimal effort to reach the widest number of people with just a few keystrokes. This is also known as the Twitter effect, which is Facebook to the extreme, and bare minimum. But the ease is just half the equation.

The other half is selfish competition within the group. People compete to see who can have the most friends. They compete to have the most interest pages. They compete to see who gets the most "Likes" to the comments that they post. Why? -- because it feeds their ego.

Sociologists have long puzzled over why kids and adults get so engrossed in social networks, computer games, dating sites and the virtual world. Old timers cannot fathom the virtual world because they do not participate fully in it. The reason why the virtual world is so popular, especially with the young, is that it is incredibly less boring and more immediate than the real world.

In the virtual world, when you play a game and kill something, your brain is rewarded with a cocktail of dopamines, adrenaline and serotonin. In the real world, it is quite boring and your mother tells you to do your homework. Most people do not have intensely rewarding lives that stimulate the production of endorphins or feel-good brain chemicals. But five minutes online can do that for you. You will soon have a stew of risk-reward brain chemicals in that noggin of yours.

In the real world, you are a virtual nobody. You can go for days without significantly interacting with a person. But sign onto Facebook and you have a few hundred people that you can address with a few keystrokes. You are a somebody online.

So don't expect the online world to diminish anytime soon. The virtual world will become a bigger and bigger portion of our lives. And if you are an architect of this brave new virtual world, you cannot forget the basic principle of the selfish herd. Otherwise you will not be herd.

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