Notes on the how and the why of social networking

Apuntes sobre el cómo y el por qué de las redes socialesThe existence of social networks is the phenomenon where the more clearly we can observe the complexities of our way of processing and sharing information. And is that in these networks are involved jointly important psychological processes that, to the naked eye, can happen unnoticed. In this post we will review, from evolutionary psychology, some aspects that determine the origin (why) of social networks and the manner (how) in which they are structured, removing some of the social implications.

Let’s start with the question of the why of social networking. To say that the human being is social by nature it is a common place, one of those topics that tod@s we accept as obvious. But, why is social by nature? Can the naked eye not to grasp the importance of this question. As animals we are, we are subject to the mechanism of evolution, the competition for the reproduction and transmission of our genes. And it is why co-operation is a phenomenon that is not obvious, but rather a paradox: if to cooperate can help reduce the chances of reproduction, why cooperate at all? This dilemma manifests itself much more clearly in the phenomenon of altruism, co-operation carried to the extreme: an animal performs an action in favor of a second animal, or inlcuso in favor of a group, without compensation, clear to change. Since the 1970s, have been carried out, from the field of sociobiology, great efforts to solve the paradox of cooperation and altruism.

The cooperation implies an advantage, as the animals that cooperate with greater resources and a higher level of security than those that do not. The exchange of favors is called “altruism reciprocal“. This type of cooperation is always a potential danger: it could happen, that would help a second person, but it does not help me when needed. In this way, in the next interaction with that person I will think twice before returning to lend you my help. We could imagine a population of individuals, who behave as “alturistas” and others as “non-altruistic”: if the altruistic cooperate but do not receive anything in exchange for the non-altruistic, it is likely that the group as such is finished disoviendo. Therefore, what allows the existence of groups that cooperate?

It is more than likely that the social feelings and moral values have played a major role in this question (Pinker, 2003: p. 387). Among the feelings which would have facilitated reciprocal altruism are:

  • Compassion / trust: induce people to do the first favor, without expecting anything in return
  • Loyalty: induces to return the favor, who lent us his aid
  • Shame: disuades of harm to others, or do not correspond in the exchange
  • Anger / Contempt: induces to avoid non-cooperators, and even to punish them

Far from being a simple hypothesis, the participation of moral sentiments has received strong support from two fronts: the neuroscience, which has even identified modules moral that seem to be universal; the anthropology, which, thanks to the work of Donald Norman has pointed out the existence of some moral feelings and social practices that seem to reproduce in most human cultures known (even if they have never made contact of any kind).

In addition, there are two human capacities are universal , and together with the moral feelings, allow for the existence of the cooperation:

  • The detection of cheaters in social interaction
  • The possession of a theory of the mind developed, that allows us to infer the mental states of other people

Although this is a simplified description of the explanations on the cooperation that currently are handled in biology, it allows us to expose a first implication: in addition to the perception of a shared goal, it is necessary to pay attention to the emotions of the individuals who form the network. Although to cooperate is a natural phenomenon, that does not mean that spontaneously emerge in any situation and context. Individuals also have their own interests, and our emotions often affect the way in which we perceive. Count with the necessary technology, or the will to create a network, does not have to be enough.

The clearest example of this fact can be found in the programs of knowledge management through the creation of communities of practice in companies: the suspicions and the private interests of the members of the community can give to the fret with the best intentions of the managers.

We’re going to talk now about the how. Although the study of how to form networks is a whole discipline in itself, I will use some reflections of the work Communication and power, the sociologist Manuel Castells. In this work, Castells is interested in how to exercise political power in the Information Society. And your response, the fruit of a thorough research is: through the creation of networks.

In the creation of networks, Castells differentiates two types of actors, which may be isolated individuals, but also groups of individuals of different groups (Castells, 2009, p. 45):

  • The programmers: are those agents that create networks and assign them a specific role, a purpose. In function of this purpose, the network may become more important and connected to other agents.
  • The connectors: they are those agents that connect and manage the cooperation of different networks, using for this purpose the presence of shared interests.

But, how do you get programmers that the influence of the network grow, so that it achieves its objectives?: through the communication (Castells, 2009, p. 45). The control of the communication is the key, because through this process, we can disseminate the purposes of the network and influence individuals.

However, the communication does not have what to show in a clear way the objectives of the network. In fact, Castells shows us how the large networks of corporations global, and networks of political interests, use of manipulation to awaken certain feelings in the society, and obtain the support of individuals (a process known as framing). We met again with the feelings, and with their influence on individuals in the process of creation of networks.

Castells focuses on the political networks, but also speaks to us of the existence of other networks, which are interconnected by the work of the connectors:

For instance, the connections between political leadership networks, media networks, scientific and technology networks, and military and security networks to assert a geopolitical strategy. Or, the connection between political networks and media networks to produce and diffuse specific political ideological discourses. Or, the relationship between religious networks and political networks to advance a religious agenda in a secular society. Or between academic networks and business networks to provide knowledge and legitimacy in exchange for resources for universities and jobs for their products (aka graduates). (Castells, 2009, p. 46)

The power connector is also treated by Christakis and Fowler in their work Connected. According to the authors, by connecting different networks possess information that the network to which we are not connected it may not. The authors comment that:

One of the implications of this is that people who have many weak linkages are asked for advice often, and offers them opportunities to exchange information or access. In other words, the people that act as bridges between groups can become central to the overall functioning of the network and therefore are more likely to be rewarded financially and in other ways (Chistakis, Fowler, 2010; pp 170-171).

Summing up: the influence on the emotions of the target audience of the network, carried out by the programmers, can make the network to gain connections; how many more connections you earn, the more opportunities you will have the connectors to join different networks; and how many more networks are connected, the more strengthened will be the value of the programmers and the connectors.

Christakis and Fowler derive a conclusion, the grim of this dynamic:

[…] in an increasingly interconnected world, people with many ties are connected even more, making it more and more back to those who have few connections. As a result, the rewards will be concentrated even more in those who occupy certain places in the network. This is the true digital divide. The inequality in networks creates and reinforces inequality of opportunity. (Chistakis, Fowler, 2010; p. 308)

This is a real danger. Recall that Castells tells us that the programmers and connectors can be different agents, and that therefore the networks that can be created can be of different types: connections between political actors, scientists, military, economic,… we Would do well to be alert if we want democracies strong, and cyberspace truly democratic.

Social networks are a complex reality of our time, which lend themselves to multiple analyses. I leave you with some questions: what do you think of the digital divide mentioned by Christakis and Fowler?; are you aware of the role of moral sentiments in the interactions with the nodes of the networks in which ways?; do you manage somehow those feelings in those networks on the part of the managers of the same?


Castells, Manuel. Communication and power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Christakis, Nicholas A. ; Fowler, James H. Connected: the surprising power of social networks and how they affect us. Madrid: Santillana, 2010.

Pinker, Steven. The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. Barcelona: Paidos, 2003.


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