Stuck in the Monkeysphere

04 December 2013

Humans are a social species, so as a species we don't like being alone for long periods of time, and we like the attention of others. The Internet seems like a great thing with the rise of various social networks that let us share our interests and thoughts with people across the globe and allows us to gather a large social following of like-minded people. Given that, it would seem that the Internet should make us all happy as we expand our circles globally and to people we may have never met in person. Social networking is now the number one activity on the Internet (displacing porn, which was at the top for quite a while).

As we spend more time online with our virtual friends, we start to lose some of our ability to manage real-world social interactions to the point where picking up the phone or meeting someone in person makes some people incredibly nervous. Research is showing that as our relationships increasingly move to the Internet, our satisfaction in these relationships falls dramatically to the point where they almost no longer count as "real" relationships. This becomes apparent as most people (unconsciously) put on a facade to make themselves look better on the Internet so their online network becomes a group of people who are less able to relate to each other on a genuine level, and as friends lists surpass several hundred people who may not know each other in person (and may never). We feel more connected, but the more connected we are, the more opportunity we have to present ourselves in the way that we want to be seen so the less genuine our relationships become. Reports of people with large online networks who feel lonely or isolated from their friends are becoming increasingly common as we lose the ability to be alone, since there's so much focus on being connected to everyone else (even when we can't or shouldn't be).

An interesting phenomenon that exists - and becomes more pronounced with social media - is the Monkeysphere. The Monkeysphere was discovered in monkeys (who are also social creatures) and found that the size of the groups of monkeys is limited to about 50. Beyond that, social interactions and relationships start to break down and so the group breaks apart. Humans experience a similar phenomenon, and our limit is on average 150 people. Considering that we can only intimately know around 150 people at any given time, the fact that our friend lists far surpass 150 people in a lot of cases shows that we want more and we're trying to get more, but there's a lot of people in our social groups who we may not have the capacity to have relationships with (simply because we've surpassed our limits). We may try, and the Internet makes it easier to pretend we're good at it, but in actuality we can't handle it and we don't know where we fit in.

As our friend lists grow, our online relationships become lower quality, and we lost the ability to deal with being alone, we start to feel lonely and isolated and we're not sure why. Years ago, when social networking was much newer it would be easier to limit it and go outside more, but it's too late for that since society is too wound up in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and the like. It's much more work to have real relationships and because we're not accustomed to it, interacting in the real world where we can't edit everything before we say it becomes disconcerting. The Internet is great for keeping in touch with people we may not see much, but not really so great at creating new relationships with people we've never met.

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