WhatsApp, Facebook and Human Nature

Facebook and Whatsapp logo on texture, partial graphic
Facebook and Whatsapp logo on texture, partial graphic

For almost the entirety of our existence as a species, Homo sapiens have evolved and lived in small groups of less than a couple of hundred people. Facebook just acted accordingly.

Facebook's multi-billion dollar purchase of WhatsApp signals a recognition that apart from broadcasting across large and remote social groups, social networks must accommodate the primal human desire to communicate with those they have close social relations with -- people they routinely call and see in person. We humans crave direct interpersonality.

Of course, benefits accrue to those billion members worldwide who have joined Facebook. Beyond giving "real" friends who are local the opportunity to endlessly keep each other informed of their comings and goings, they also provide opportunities for geographically distant "real" friends to keep up with the data points of their respective everyday lives, and they provide a structure within which people who once knew each other, but whose contact has lapsed, to find each other again.

However, information regarding personal locations, likes and laments add up to a mere chronicle. They are not narrative. Social networks need to do more to support narrative. Narrative is the sinew of life.

For the most part, social networks do not now provide for the scruffy path of narrative and storytelling that turns the sap of data and description into the syrup of meaning and memory. Facebook should seek to find ways to support something that resembles the winding road that is the improvisational art of naturally-occurring conversation -- a means of communication wherein what is talked about is more than what is stated.

And what about making "friends" with friends that your other friends know, but you do not? To make more "friends" with assumed like-minded individuals can expand your information base, but it can also be self-limiting. When others can only say "yes" or "like" and not "yes, but" or "no, because," what becomes of Becoming? When others are confined to "information transfer" where is the bandwidth for hearing other points of view and being energized by the juiciness of storytelling that expands one's own self-story and, with it, one's memory base?

The beauty of life is largely in its serendipity, surprise and resulting creativity. Many social media sites can be too linear, basing linkages only on a person's momentary interests and lifestyle. It all seems a bit too tidy, too curated.

With Social Media There Is Too Little "Messing About"

Kenneth Graham's Wine in the Willows made 'messing about' famous.

"Nice? It's the only thing," said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing -- absolute nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing." He went on dreamily, "...messing -- about in boats; messing --'In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter."

The way I see it, relationships are of three kinds, each having a different focus:

1. Having

Here, a person seeks momentary pleasure by collecting or acquiring amusements and objects.

2. Doing

Here, a person hopes for a return -- some sought of personal gain or advancement -- and the measure of effectiveness is "usefulness."

3. Being

Here, a person immerses himself in a shared experience with another person. The assessment of "worth" is not relevant and there is no calculable positive or negative;. The experience is the experience, and it's just "between" friends.

"Having" and "doing" are simple, linear and direct. "Being" is more disordered and scrappy. Acquisition and usefulness can be rewarding, but they are not necessarily self-involving.

Perhaps, then, the crux of the matter is Facebook as it is now constituted -- apart from new acquisitions such as WhatsApp -- needs to, in and of itself, make some room for people to expand their identities, not just their interests, photo archive, or location-knowledge.

Neurological experiments have demonstrated that when we identify with something or someone -- when we feel something is part of us -- the brain's medial prefrontal cortex is activated, a brain region involved with self-definition. In this case, the idea, person or product is felt to fit into the picture a person has of himself or herself. A reverie about self is provoked.

In contrast, when a person feels the attributes of an idea, person or product satisfies their interests, the brain region known as the putamen lights up. The object remains external.

Humans seek the satisfaction that comes when our identities are activated and we can gain some elbow-room for the self. The idea here is not only to save face, but grow: Self-expand the idea you have of you and the world.

Sure, people want attention. People want to be affirmed. These needs are encoded in our genome. These sentiments, though, tend to be in the service of the status quo. In contrast, self-expansion requires curiosity, exploration, surprise (change) and a facility with narrative-making. So, to provide a space wherein people can be and become, Facebook will need to mess about a bit more.

A friend recently told me of his 11-year-old daughter's first message sent after he helped her set up a Facebook account. It read: "Hey, yo, I'm here." This little girl wants "in." But in to what? And what could digital-friendship be in the future? The questions is: How should Facebook operate and be structured so it could evolve in ways that make online experience immediate and lasting? In other words, more memorable and worthy of storytelling. No need to clean up its act. This answer is Facebook needs to get a little more "messy."

Then that young girl who said, "Hey, yo, I am here" can begin to feel, "Hey, yo, I am becoming more of myself." That's a user experience!