Written by Chad Echakowitz
Human beings have evolved. Whether you believe in evolution or not, evolution believes in you. For better or for worse, our most recent evolutional step is all thanks to social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram. This evolution has not affected us physically: unfortunately, we haven’t developed gills, or the ability to see better in the dark, but we have become the first versions of the Human species to quantify and place a numerical value on social interaction and cultural progression… which is so much better than being able to breathe underwater.
Unless you’re an octogenarian (and even if you are an octogenarian) you probably know what memes are. Now a meme (and it’s pronounced meem, not me-me) is not just a funny picture that’s spread around the Internet for the enjoyment of millions. “Meme” was a term coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). A Meme, according to Dawkins, is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. The Meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other means which can be mimicked. According to Dawkins, Memes are like genes in the fact that they can self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.
An example may be helpful here. Let’s look at the rise of the skinny jean. Until the mid-2000’s, skinny jeans were not fashionable; baggier, looser jeans were all the rage. Then, suddenly, the skinny jean revolution began; first with women and then with men. The fashion changed rapidly to a tighter, more restrictive means of covering one’s legs and, over time, that fashion has developed into super skinnies, straight cut, jeggings, and other forms of excruciatingly tight jeans. This is an example of a Meme in fashion. The skinny jean Meme was able to replicate by the fact that it was considered fashionable to wear them, mutate to become available for both men and women, and respond to selective pressures, such as diversifying into different styles, depending on whether the wearer wanted them tighter (super skinnies) or looser (straight cut). Consequently, since 2005 the skinny jean Meme has been injected in to Western culture.
This is only half the story however. It does not explain how we have quantified social interaction and culture. Enter Social Exchange Theory. This theory postulates that human relationships are formed by the use of a subjective, cost-benefit analysis and the comparison of alternatives. According to Sociologist George Homans, social exchange is the exchange of activity, tangible or intangible, that is more or less rewarding or costly between at least two persons. Homans goes on to give three propositions that occur in a social exchange system: first, when a person is rewarded for their actions, they will tend to repeat that action. Second, the more often a particular stimulus has resulted in a reward in the past, the more likely it is that a person will respond to it. And finally, the more often in the recent past a person has received a particular reward, the less valuable any further unit of that reward becomes. The Social Exchange Theory puts a large emphasis on the importance of self-interest as a positive element of social interaction, and not a negative one. Self-interest is a guiding force of interpersonal relationships for the advancement of both parties. There is a lot more to this theory than this small paragraph, but for the purposes of this argument, this will suffice.
In other words, Social Exchange Theory says that when two or more people meet, they will weigh the cost to reward benefit of that meeting and from that analysis decide whether to continue with that relationship or not. For example, you meet Dave from the office. He is nice, funny, and his opinions on the season finale of Westworld match yours. The only problem is, every time he finishes a sentence he sucks his teeth. The sound sends chills up your spine. The rewards of the interaction are that you could have a great friendship with Dave; you two get along really well and it means you don’t have to sit alone during lunch. But is the friendship worth sitting through hours and hours of teeth sucking? Could you bare it during the Christmas party, when you inevitably speak to him, and just him, for the majority of the evening? If the answer is no, then the social exchange is over because the cost outweighs the reward and so the relationship dies like all your hopes and aspirations. Of course, there is a lot more to social interaction and building relationships but this simple example serves its purpose for this argument. Please don’t think that this encapsulates all of Social Exchange Theory because it is only the tip of the iceberg. It is incredibly interesting so do read more if you get the chance.
The second proposition of Social Exchange Theory states that if you go home to your spouse and they’ve cooked your favourite meal because you cleaned the dishes before you went to work, it is more likely you’ll clean the dishes the next morning too. The theory then proposes that the more you get your favourite meal for cleaning the dishes, the more likely it is that you will clean the dishes. However, so the theory argues, if this happens every night for a week or two - where you’re getting your favourite meal every night - you are less likely to want to clean the dishes for that same reward.
And here’s where social media marries Meme Theory with Social Exchange Theory. Facebook and Instagram are just two of many social media sites where people can share any and every aspect about themselves so that their friends, family, and complete strangers can comment and like those aspects. Social media is a great conduit for Memes and the ability for them to spread. We are able to spread any Meme, whether it relates to art, fashion, speech or writing at the click of a mouse and the rest of the world can react to those Memes by either liking it or disliking it (or liking it less than other things) and so social media sites become conduits for the development of culture through the rapid spread of memes. The memes that are liked become part of our every day lives and our rapidly changing culture, while the memes that aren’t (or are liked less) become insignificant and disappear.
If we keep posting the same thing on Instagram or Facebook over and over again, we will start to see a decline in likes, and even if we don’t, a change will need to be made in order to refresh and revitalize the importance of those likes. This directly relates to the second and third proposition of Social Exchange Theory. We form a relationship with the people on our feeds and we like or dislike the things they post. There is no cost, except for the minor effort we have to put in by scrolling down our feeds, but the benefits are immense because we can decide, as a collective, what we like and don’t like. We give a reward be liking things which then leads to that Meme being repeated and passed on to others.
Depending on how many likes we get on a particular post, we change our behavior, and what we like and dislike in response to the number of likes we receive. There are stories of people changing their hairstyles just because they received less likes on Facebook than they thought they would receive. It is in this way that we have quantified and placed a numerical value of social interaction. Likes are good, and no likes are bad. We become what the people believe is popular, and we create what becomes popular by liking and not liking different things. A like is akin to a single person in a fad, the more likes, the more popular, and so culture is developed in accordance with what has the most likes.
This is an important step in our evolution because we have a better control over what becomes part of our culture. While we are heavily influenced by large corporations, intensive advertising, and data manipulation, the quantification of culture implies that we are – or at least can be – in control. We, the masses create our own destiny, we can turn the tides of our culture by hitting the like button on post A more than on post B. It is a symbol for the control we have as a group. We are powerful because we are many.
Of course, this can be dangerous too. Sometimes, the masses can make mistakes. We make stupid decisions that harm minorities or the planet and are just downright ignorant. We act before we think and we can now see the consequences more clearly. But as ol’ Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” With this new evolutionary step, we have a responsibility to be more conscious about our decisions. To take a look at what we’re doing, to dive deep into our actions and say, “Hey, am I going to be considered an asshole for doing this?” and if the answer is “yes”, then don’t do it. Quantification of culture means our responsibility is higher because our accountability is lower.
We are the first of the human species who have been able to assign a value to popularity and social interaction. This is a step forward in our evolution. It is now easier than ever to determine what everyone likes and dislikes and to conform to those memes. It is your choice, however, as an individual, to decide what you do with this power. The faceless Internet means you are not held accountable to the standard you should be. It is your responsibility to hold yourself to a high standard. Then again, sharing pictures of cats is pretty harmless.