Facebook – Human Evolution through Happy Birthday!

I am pleased with this point in my life. My life is full of primarily excellent activities and some great people. I have a few beautiful things.
I love my wife more than ever. We are a team.
Our 15-year-old succeeds with most qualities of the “magic matrix” parents desire for their kids these days.
Our son is:

  • smart
  • good looking
  • athletically inclined
  • creative
  • bubbling with business acumen
  • and, of course, is a natural-born leader

Actually, not so much for some of those. But as parents, we have the right to be somewhat deluded about our children.
What he undeniably has is an excellent sense of humor. Laughing together is one of life’s great joys, and we do it every day with our son.
This illustrates that my relationships are the most significant area of personal satisfaction for me today. I have been so fortunate to have met literally hundreds (if not thousands) of amazing people through the various circles I have been involved with.
This brings me to Facebook.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology social media scholar Judith Donath in her article, “From Darwin to Facebook,” posits that Facebook’s value is derived from providing a way to maintain and develop what she calls “loose affiliations.” These loose associations of schoolmates, coworkers, neighbors, family, and acquaintances were, before Facebook, difficult or even impossible to maintain.
Thanks to Facebook and its greatest hits package of internet functionality (contacts, messaging, chat, blogging, and photo sharing), maintenance of these relationships are now “easy peasy!”
According to Donath, loose affiliations are also worthwhile to maintain from an evolutionary standpoint because they promote increased survivability in today’s complex world. While it is great to tap into the broader networks of the Internet for product reviews and other answers from total strangers, having more trustworthy advisers (as in people you know, have known, or interacted with) can enhance social survival. In other words, loose affiliations are a competitive advantage.
Similarly, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has postulated that there may be a limit to the number of relationships a person can cognitively maintain. The imprecise “Dunbar’s number” is about 150 relationships. Interestingly, Facebook reports that a typical member’s average number of “friends” is currently 338. Double the original Dunbar number. This number has steadily increased over the past five years.
The original Dunbar number (150) was derived from studying primates and does not account for technological advances such as Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) and Social Network Sites (SNS) that are at the core of Facebook. I checked Snopes and confirmed that there were never ancient astronauts fostering primate cognitive development long before the Internet officially sprung to life in 1992 with the Mosaic browser. This is a new phenomenon.
I became interested in Facebook while earning my Masters’s degree in Communication. I wrote my thesis about Facebook and Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory. A snore to read for sure, but it made me familiar with CMC and SNS during the process. This process also sent me on a tear to add as many Facebook friends as possible. Today I have slightly more than 800 friends on Facebook. The vast majority are people I know or have known IRL (that’s in real life to the kids).
If Facebook indeed is some evolutionary adaptation, as Donath suggests, then perhaps strengthening our cognitively limited circles of friends beyond the doubled Dunbar’s number is something to aspire to. The question then is how to do this.
There are many practical ways to build good loose alliances. Most of them require little effort. One of the simplest ways is to wish your Facebook friends a “Happy Birthday!” Facebook knows this and has made the process amazingly simple. First, they remind you of the person’s birthday. Then, they give you a prominent button to click that sends the birthday celebrant a personalized greeting/message. The whole process takes less than a couple of seconds.
Of my 800+ Facebook friends, nearly 200 took those seconds this year to say “Happy Birthday” during my last birthday. Some added messages. I was delighted by every note. No matter the affiliation’s distance, it was nice to see the birthday wish on Facebook. Never in my life have that many people wished me a Happy Birthday.
Here is the point. I am now more inclined to help any of those who gave me a happy birthday  (should they reach out to me directly with a request). Those loose affiliations have been strengthened through this short and simple act of saying “Happy Birthday!”
What may be at play is what Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini would call “the first principle of persuasion,” reciprocity. People tend to return a favor. Wish me a happy birthday; I feel a slight sense of obligation. Maybe it is to wish you a happy birthday when it happens, but over time, who knows? The sky’s the limit!
So while some deride Facebook as a hangout for self-centered narcissists (which it undeniably is) and political trolls (2 for 2), it is the future and the place where you can access ONE BILLION people.
Many billion people are real people, and connecting with them to say “happy birthday” is human and straightforward – crossing most cultures and politics. Who knew this simple action might foster stronger affiliations through the psychology of reciprocity?
So next time you see that it is someone’s birthday on Facebook, go ahead and click and send them a note. You might brighten their day and simultaneously be helping to evolve the human species.

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