Facebook Is the New Sugar

December 2007/January 2008

When I think of the Internet, I think of sugar. Sugar? Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists have wrestled with a difficult question: why do we like things that are bad for us and that shorten our lifespan? Like sugar. We eat too much refined sugar, we become obese, we suffer from diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Evolution isn’t supposed to work this way. It’s supposed to select for those physical characteristics and behaviors that are beneficial and lead to larger numbers of progeny, thereby increasing those features and behaviors in the overall population.

So why do we like something bad for us? The answer, hypothesized by evolutionary psychologists, is that we evolved a large brain during the Stone Age because that had survival advantages. But this large brain was a tradeoff, because it takes a considerable amount of energy-rich food to maintain.

And what kind of food in the Stone Age would supply the necessary jolt to feed this hungry brain? Sweet fruit. Those early hominids developed a taste for sweet fruit because it supplied just the fix their brains needed.

Fast forward a few eons. Here we are, left with our sweet tooth and other behaviors that evolved during the Stone Age — but in a very different environment. And that environment includes lots of sweet things — to the delight of our taste buds but to the detriment of our health.

So how is this related to the Internet? Well, I’ve been trying to understand my addiction to it, and I think this explains it. I crave e-mail. I need my web fix many times a day. How can evolutionary psychology explain this?

First off, it’s hypothesized that the driving force behind our large brains was social organization. We are a social species, living in complex hierarchies of status and networks of relationships that we’re often only vaguely aware of. This social organization has extraordinary survival advantages.

Take chimpanzees, for example. A single chimpanzee would likely be on the losing end of an encounter with a lion, but what happens when a lion approaches a group of chimpanzees? They don’t run, which would be a big mistake. Instead, they gather around and start throwing things at the lion. They respond as a group, and lions typically run away.

Fundamental to who we are are the connections we have with others, our complex web of interactions that constantly take place. We have a taste for these connections, just like we have a taste for sugar.

And just in the same way that we’ve developed refined sugar, we’ve created a zillion ways to connect with each other — unencumbered by time and space.

So here’s your Internet columnist, eons after the Stone Age, getting a daily jolt of disembodied connections: that welter of news, gossip, e-mails, discussions, and more that is now my environment, thanks to the Internet.

Enter social networking sites, like MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook. They take this jolt to the Nth degree. No wonder these sites are popular. And no wonder I’m having a fun time with Facebook.

MySpace is so yesterday. In case you haven’t noticed, Facebook is the new MySpace. Everyone’s flocking to it. It has all the features typical of social networking sites: the ability to create a profile that includes your favorite movies, favorite music, favorite books, marital status, photos, education, and more. Plus, it has the typical mechanisms for exchanging messages with your friends, posting public messages in each other’s profile areas, etc.

And, most importantly, these services let you develop networks of friends. Go to my profile and you’ll see the people who are my “friends.” (Truth is, I hardly know some of those who’ve added me as a friend but confirmed their request anyway.)

The genius of Facebook and other sites is the way they let networks of people interact. When I go to Facebook, front and center on the home page is the “News Feed”: at a glance I can see what my friends are doing and their interactions. I can read the poem that Rustin posted on his “Wall.” And the poem that Christine posted on his Wall. I’m alerted to the photos that Karen has posted of her experiences in India. And on and on — a million different ways to interact with people you know.

But, as with sugar, you gotta be careful not to get too much.

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen