Could social media be a third phase of human relationships? Consider this clip with Facebook’s Director of Engineering where he describes how the service allows people to scale their number of relationships. (The first 30 seconds are the real meat.)
There was a limit, for hundreds of thousands of years, on how much you could get done in personal connections. I can only meet so many people in a day, I can only take so many phone calls. But with Facebook, with Twitter, with Yelp, and social media in general, your ability to communicate with people is greatly increased. It’s more efficient, more effective, and definitely much more scalable.
What’s interesting is how this parallels what Robin Dunbar has famously argued about the origin of human language. When primates started living together in large societies, it became paramount to know who your friends and enemies were. This was accomplished by grooming–literally touching and pruning those who were your friends, and watching who was grooming others. Dunbar argues that language emerged as a more scalable version of grooming. You can talk to a lot of people at once, and you can hear about the state of other relationships without having to be there to witness the “grooming event”.
I’m fascinated with the idea that social media is allowing a similar revolution in scale. So we have three stages:
Relationships maintained by real-world touching. Other relationships must be physically observed. (E.g. see the descriptions of baboon life in A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky)
Relationships maintained by conversation. Other relationships can be heard about from others. (E.g. see all human literature.)
Relationships are maintained by light weight online interactions such as texts, likes, tweets, etc. (E.g. see the device that’s currently in your pocket.)
Of course, it could be that new technology only seems to allow such a revelation in scale. Harvard’s Sherri Turkle argues in her book and her NY Times article  that online relationships are mostly illusory.
And even if these promises of more relationships are true, is that what’s good for us?