A Tribe Of 5000: Why Our Brains Haven’t Evolved For Facebook

Tonight I am reflecting upon the effects that connections over the web can have on our lives.

What I’m referring to specifically here is the fallout from having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, or having thousands of people follow you on Twitter.

OK, so not all of us have such large numbers, but there are people who do and we all know them. Some of you reading this right now might even fall into this category. Don’t worry, this post is not going to judge you or tell you that it’s bad to have so many online connections; I’m just going to explore the consequences of being in such a position.

If we take a moment and think of how human beings developed socially over hundreds of thousands of years, we can view this situation in a different light. Imagine you are from a tribe of hunter-gatherers living in the middle of nowhere. Realistically, how many people do you know? 50? 100, max? Not only your immediate family, but your extended family, the other tribe members, even people from tribes in the local area that you encounter from time to time on important occasions such as a wedding or festival.

Some of them you know well, others you know less well, some you barely know at all. In all honesty, who is aware of the events in your day to day life? Your immediately family, yes. Most likely the other tribe members, although they might not know all the nitty gritty details. Would the people from that other tribe that you never see except once a year know? Probably not.

So when something happens such as, let’s say, seeing some beautiful flowers in a meadow while you’re out gathering berries, every person in your life is not immediately aware. You might tell your family around the campfire that night, and you may mention it in passing the next day to a fellow tribe member. But you sure as hell do not send up smoke signals to the other tribe going, “OMG TOTALLY PRETTY FLOWERS OVER THERE!”

Do you have the right to send up smoke signals telling the other tribe about the flowers? Hell yeah! But would you really do it? Probably not.

So you see – tweeting or posting about every single damn thing is akin to sending up smoke signals to every person you know.

Now, some people may want to send up smoke signals about every event in their lives. It may be a great way to stay in contact with the “other tribe” that you never get to see, and they may even send smoke signals back engaging in a conversation about the flowers. That’s cool, that’s your right. But think about it; at the end of the day, do people from other tribes far far away need to know every little thing you are doing?

The scientific truth is our brains just plain did not evolve to be able to handle this. I read a study a few years ago – and I can’t remember who it was by, otherwise I’d link you to it – that explored how many faces a human being could properly recognise and identify. The number was approximately 80 if I recall correctly. This study put forth that this was the number of people in our clans or tribes thousands of years ago. The study then went on to provide an explanation for our obsession with celebrities in the 20th and 21st centuries. When we see our favourite starlet in a magazine or on TV, we recognise a clan member; one of the 80 or so faces we’re most used to seeing. We feel we know them, when we have never met them even once.

(Did you hear that? You are not a Kardashian! No matter how many times you’ve watched the show! I know, it hit me hard as well!)

With brains that are tuned to be part of clans of approximately 80 people, we cannot keep up with the 5000 friends that Facebook allows us to have. Sure, you can have 5000 friends if you want to, but when you have posts from hundreds of people flooding your page – even when you tune your newsfeed to perfection, or try to ignore it as much as possible – it’s information overload. We now get more interactions in a day than we might have gotten in months back in prehistoric times.

The other aspect of this is the pure energy this can drain from you. I’ve been feeling the sting of this lately spiritually and metaphysically. Feeling my energy being sapped is a very tactile thing for me (some may think this is bullshit and they have the right to believe that, but I’m just presenting you with my experience). I was in a position where I had over 200 people friended on my Facebook page, some quite close to me and whom I saw very regularly, others who I’d formerly been close to and had drifted away from, and still others who I’d met once, possibly intoxicated, friended them, and my only contact since had been online.

Normally I have no problem at all with friending people I’ve met once, or with staying connected to people I’d drifted away from. But I was feeling that the people I’d only met, I hardly knew. It felt like a stranger had access to my thoughts and life events. And the people I’d drifted away from felt like strangers. Some I had drifted from after painful almost-falling-outs, and whose friendship contained awkward memories. Others just started making posts that I didn’t like or agree with and I began to wonder if I’d ever truly known these people at all.

Hide them in your newsfeed, I hear you say. Yes, I did that, but it still felt odd being connected to them. Block your posts from being visible to them, I hear you say. Yes, but I confess I never quite learned how to do that. Facebook changes itself every 5 minutes and I can’t keep up with the how-tos. Plus social networking should not be that difficult – it shouldn’t take me an hour to figure out how to prevent one person from seeing something I’m posting. Honestly, the cleanest and easiest process was to just break the connection.

I wanted my own energy back, and I feel that I now have it, to a large extent. I believe I may have stepped on a few toes but I had to do this. I don’t think any of these people had any intention of being energy vampires; in fact the suggestion may even hurt their feelings. But I just had to end the connection to save myself. Maybe I’m crazy, I don’t know. But I just don’t think every random tribe member I ever meet needs to know what I ate for breakfast.

I’m almost ready to jump back into Facebook again, and it could be that I’m about to meet hundreds of awesome new people and have more friends than I’ve ever had. You may indeed read this in a few months time and go, “What the hell! She’s got 1000 friends!” But that’s fine by me. What I’ve become aware of is that it’s important to understand the way your interactions with people on the internet drain you, and to know when to pull the plug on some. It’s a skill we could all gain from having.


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