"We should no longer dismiss social media as trivial, nor fear it is an agent for disorderly chaos. Instead, in understanding and treating it as a Social Organism, we have a unique opportunity to nourish a new, healthier society and to build a more inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable world."
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Vine transform our society, disrupt public opinion, and change the rules of politics and traditional business. The consequence of social media can be baffling. In The Social Organism, Oliver Luckett and Michael J. Casey explain how social media functions as a biological organism. We transfer information in social media through memes or recognizable patterns, just as living things use genes. Ideas spread and are changed in unpredictable ways just as evolution transforms living organisms. Social networks are incredibly complex systems like the world itself. Understanding how social media functions is key to unlocking the possibilities and avoiding the pitfalls of this dominant force.
Luckett and Casey present us with a detailed and fascinating analogy between social media and living organisms, and include a functional paradigm we can use for our own economic and personal benefit, as well as to better our society. For this summary I’ll focus on how what we share affects more than our image or reputation, it becomes part of our collective consciousness and can impact the evolution of our culture.
Social media is a stage
"The selfie and profile pic are merely two of the most obvious ways in which we perform on social media. Every word we utter in a Facebook post, every Tweet we make to score a political point, every time we choose to repost something witty or make a pertinent comment on someone else’s post, every photo of our holidays, family portraits, or pets we offer the world — all of it is performance. And we are performing not just one, but multiple personas. The digital era has turned all of us into chameleons."
We are born with the capacity to recognize patterns—they help us make sense of our world and react appropriately. We learn and communicate through patterns and filter out the patterns we don’t understand. The patterns we collectively recognize and share make up our culture. Richard Dawkins termed these units of cultural transmission “memes.” We spread our story or ideas in social media through memes every time we participate. Storytelling spurred the development of human civilization. We create a narrative that defines our shared values and unites our society. Now social media is altering our culture through the memes—the stories—we share.
Each time we share images and information we seek to influence the perception of others and communicate an emotion or idea. We express or perform a version of reality that is recognized by our audience. We choose to present the version of reality that will persuade our audience each time we communicate through social media. These memes become part of our collective consciousness and are changed within our community and alter our society. To nurture a healthy society, we need to nourish the social organism with positive memes. For actionable tactics, read on to the Insights.
Share positive ideas
"One way to build a healthier more positively inclined social media environment, then, is simply to encourage a greater abundance of emotionally positive, uplifting content. We need to celebrate and promote the human spirit; encourage compassion, empathy, and respect; build bridges of tolerance and inclusion; provide sustainability for art and culture; and seek reconciliation and rapprochement between enemies."
People are more likely to share and respond to content that evokes a strong emotional response. Emotions originate in the limbic system, the less evolved part of the brain that’s independent from the more highly developed frontal lobe that gives us reason and language. We don’t need reasons and words for emotions, but they trigger our actions. Anger is the emotion that triggers the most sharing. We are drawn to rage because it releases adrenaline, a survival hormone. A meme that triggers an intense, angry response may spread like wildfire and lead to false ideas and destructive actions that infiltrate our culture.
People also connect to positive emotions. We share pictures of cute animals, jokes, and things that make us feel good. When we make an effort to promote upbeat and useful content we boost our collective prosperity. We could censure angry expression to keep it from destroying our culture, but this is choosing an ideal, unrealistic and unsustainable version of reality. We need to be able to express ourselves freely, or any leak in the dam that holds our collective anger will cause a devastating flood of emotion. It is better to disregard angry messages and choose to contribute constructively.
Ideas evolve unpredictably
"Just because an image or a piece of text is shared doesn’t mean the memetic replication will automatically confirm to the positive image, persona, or brand management we intend to cultivate. We might think we’re ‘performing’ certain desirable versions of ourselves, but there’s no guarantee the audience will see it that way. Their responses to our performance, the choices they make in how to portray it, can do as much to determine the public persona that emerges out of the interaction as we can. A social media audience in this sense is also composed of cast members engaged in the performance of ‘you.’"
Just as every person is different, every person perceives a story differently. An intended positive depiction may look negative to others. When they pass the image on to another, the impression changes again, and the evolutionary process of altering ideas continues. The newly innovated model may bear no resemblance to the original. In social media, a new idea sometimes remains attached to its originator even though it has a different form. This metamorphosis can destroy a person or organization’s image and reputation.
Because we are communicating in tiny packets of information, it is easy to spread the wrong ideas quickly. It’s difficult to ensure all our contributions will not be misunderstood or misrepresented. We can control how we portray others. Practice respect, tact, and appreciation of others. Assume positive intention and disregard negative input. Anger over perceived injustice spreads rapidly and may not be true. False ideas can quickly replace facts in our culture and the damage done may be irreparable.
Social media has become ubiquitous in our lives. We have an opportunity as individuals to contribute to public knowledge and opinion without permission from traditional gatekeepers. When we add to our collective social organism, we perform a story to influence others. Spreading positive ideas is more constructive than angry expressions. Anger spreads quickly and may even morph into a form that feeds the fire we hoped to extinguish. Our contributions belong not just to us. They become part of our collective consciousness. Nourish the social organism with positive input, and we’ll have a healthier society.