Wednesday, February 23, 2011

40,000 Years of Social Networking

Over the past few weeks I have been reading about different archeological finds, new ways of looking at existing artifacts. Things started popping out at me, that congealed this past weekend - amazing what a day off will do. So bear with me on this, but...

Tens of thousands of years ago Homo sapiens [the first real step toward modern man] created the first knock-offs. These took the forms of fake shells that were found around highland campfire sites. Yes, land-locked ancient humans started creating fake shells out of soap stone, mimicking the shells of far-off tribes. You have to ask yourself why?

It wasn’t New York City's Canal Street where ancient tourists and label-seekers in loin-cloths were looking to buy the latest logo accessory. Or was it? What would make someone, who had to fight every day for survival, take time out to carve a shell bead to hang around their neck? Did they just want to look like a far-off tribe that lived by the sea? The answer is apparently, yes. Call it one of the first forms of social networking. Call it one of the first uses of technology [bone carving tools in that day] to connect with other, like minded people. Technology may have changed, but human nature has not. We have merely changed the technologies we use to keep up with the basic human need to create a community.

Face it, we like other people.
Think about it, back then, early Homo sapiens and Cro-Magnon lived in tribes of perhaps 25 “people.” Each had their own language, as it were, their own signs, and their own look – think fur garments for land-locked tribes, versus reeds for sea-side tribes. When tribes met, they had a pretty quick choice to make. They could make friends or they could fight. So the ability to quickly show another tribe that they were similar and should be friends became a pretty important task. So, when not killing a deer or running from a tiger, making beads to show others they should talk and trade probably ranked up pretty high for anyone looking past tomorrow. They were making beads, not just to show off, but to connect with other tribes, to show others that they were of like minds. Think of how powerful a knock-off bead must have been 30,000 years ago.
Think things have changed? They haven’t. As tribes expanded, the people of the day started banding together under staffs, under banners, under flags. Roll forward several thousand years, to the ancient Greeks. These people grouped together under the banners of city-states like Sparta and Athens. They made treaties, they warred, they died. Then larger societies like Rome came into being. We humans were far from content to be of one people. We created social networks within each of these countries – the rich and powerful separated themselves from the commoners, and well above the slaves by their look and their mannerism.
A better example of this can be found in Rome's upper classes. In the day, they used a purple dye - Tyrian purple – to set themselves apart from other Romans. It was made from glands found in a specific sea snail. Anthroplogist, David Jacoby, remarked that "twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to color only the trim of a single garment." i.e., it was expensive and only a few could afford it.

Apparently it produced a hideous stench, that ancient authors noted, but the cost of producing it was so high, the well to do didn’t care about the smell. What it did was create instant recognition among those of the upper classes, based on how much of a garment was purple. Just trim, or the whole robe? It was one of the first instances of class identification that went beyond country borders. Leaders in other places tried to replicate it with local dyes, with not so great results. But again, it was humans using the latest technology, gland extraction and dye development, to identify and isolate a community within a larger world.
For the next several hundred years, the sense of community has moved away from country borders, and more toward class. Up until about fifty years ago, one’s mannerisms and the way one dressed, spoke, and acted better showed the community one belonged to, than sewing a flag onto a garment. Think - the House of Windsor talking with Nazi Germany - community over borders. But, something happened. The ability to manufacture products at a higher quality and lower cost began to undermine the value of a luxury brand's label. Don't get me wrong, branded labels didn't go away. Instead, the concept of “mixing labels” appeared. People started venturing away from large stores in search of "they're own look". Once again, it was new technology - the ability to travel - that became the new social identifier. "Oh, look what I picked up in Paris..."
Then, along came the Internet, and once again, the technology of social networking changed.

Today, people are using Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, even creating their own, more personal social networks to retain a sense of social order. Don’t get me wrong, the old labels still matter. But new tribes are being formed. Power comes in different shapes today. Look how Twitter has been used among Iranian anti-government intellectuals. See how China is trying to shut down Google as a means to keep its own classes in line. Oh wait, they’re a classless society - oops...
From the day of sitting for hours to carve a single bead, to creating a page on Facebook, to developing a clique within a social network, it has all been a part of the human experience. So why fight it? Those who win, are the ones who learn to use the new technology, who learn to make friends, and who learn to work with a network of like minded people. It is the way humans have always managed to outgrow the competition – whether it lions, tigers, bulls or bears….