Social Behaviour Linked to Genes

News has been making the rounds that the number of friends people have, and how close their ties to friends are, may at least partially be genetically determined. I got the news from Raph Koster‘s blog entry titled “Connectors” and “hubs” may be genetically inclined. Fascinating stuff.

But I can’t help wonder how that applies to social networking sites, and those connection-gatherer types that one encounters. Seems like not a week goes by1 in which you’re not invited to join the friends list of someone you absolutely have no connection to.

An overview of the structure of DNA.
Image via Wikipedia

Over time, it becomes apparent that not only do these people accumulate an extraordinarily large number of connections, but that your connection to them, well, isn’t. That is, apart from the initial contact request, you don’t actually communicate with them.

My slightly cynical take on these people is that they’re exhibiting a form of penis envy, and compare friends list lengths. I can’t imagine any other reason for accumulating such a long friends list and then not using it2.

Koster’s point of view focuses less on the genetic disposition of multi-connected people, but rather on the fact that they can have an influence on virtual communities. Such hubs and their connections may, for example, decide to leave the community and pull their connections with them. Now if I was connected to a real hub, someone whose connection I value, I might be inclined to follow them — I can see that. If, however, the hub turns out to be a connection-gatherer, I’m more inclined to be glad to be rid of them.

Which really begs the question how these connection-gatherers fit into the whole picture. Are they and hubs the same? Do they just imitate hubs? For what reason? Are they just statistical flukes — or am I the statistical fluke by even considering these two types of creatures to be different?

I’d like to hear your thoughts!

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  1. It’s actually much less, but yes, I find them that annoying. []
  2. Uh, hey, maybe that analogy went a bit far now. Or maybe not. Who knows? []

  • Norman

    Sehr interessanter Gedanke… in der Tat bekommt man, nachdem man zu diversen dieser “Communities” eingeladen worden ist und nachschauend eine kurze Zeit darin verbracht hat, den deutlichen Eindruck, daß (logischerweise, nicht wahr?) gerade diejenigen, welche sich der virtuellen Schwanzverlängerungen in Bezug auf besonders viele “Freunde” zu haben befleißigen, entsprechend auch notwendigerweise gerade die Zeit zur Verfügung haben, die sie dafür notwendigerweise ins Netz investieren müssen. Was, andersherum gedacht, exakt die Zeit sein muß, die sie nicht mit nichtvirtuellen Verbindungen zubringen. De facto dürften also gerade jene mit besonders eindrucksvoller Schwanzverlängerung genau die sein, die effektiv über ausgesprochen blasse wirkliche soziale Verknüpfungen verfügen, gelle?

    Normans last blog post: “Ordensburg” Vogelsang und Wollsiefen

    • unwesen

      Ich weiss nicht…

      Einerseits wunder ich mich ueber die Leute, die lange Freundeslisten haben, ohne mit den Leuten zu kommunizieren. So eine Einladung zu verschicken, nimmt einem nicht viel Zeit vom Rest des Lebens weg… die geht nur ab, wenn man mit den Leuten dann auch viel quatscht.

      Andererseits kann da durchaus Kompensation ins Spiel kommen, und Leute bauen virtuelle Verknuepfungen auf, weil die im Rest des Lebens nicht funktionieren. Das ist zumindest eine Theorie, die interessant waere, zu belegen.

      Dabei bin ich beispielsweise auch gar kein typischer Benutzer solcher Communities. Wenn man bedenkt, wie wichtig es inzwischen ist, dass man facebook/twitter/usw. auch vom Handy aus benutzen kann, dann sieht man auch wie diese Seiten benutzt werden: um mit nicht-virtuellen Freunden zu kommunizieren.

      Fragt sich dann, ob Freunde mit denen man groesstenteils ueber’s Handy die Freundschaft pflegt, auch solche sind… und spaetestens da wird mir die Diskussion zu schwammig, und ich schliesse meinen Kommentar :)

  • Andy

    This is a very interesting topic and one that is going to become more valuable as time goes on. When you look at it, social networking is not a phenomenon of the computer age. By the very fact that something is social, means it has existed since the first homosapiens gathered around a camp fire of an evening to tell stories about what lurked in the dark. Technology is really an enabler for faster broader social networking. So for those people who were/are the kinds of people that always had lots of friends in school, there is a good chance they will use the the internet to facilitate extending their social networks into virtual communities in the same way they do in meatspace. However I’m betting that the shy introverted person who was the loner at school is probably not going to have 800 friends on Facebook. Unlike the outgoing party girl that got a job working in a retail jeans outlet, and never stopped socialising, who statistically speaking has a very good chance of topping 800 people on her Facebook account.

    Social networking I would say is entirely likely to be based on an individuals EQ, than IQ with which we would associate an affinity/aptitude for technology. I find this is entirely consistent with the idea that there is a genetic predisposition towards being a hub or connector described in Ralph’s article.

    Like you said, fascinating stuff!


    Andys last blog post: History repeating people

    • unwesen

      Technology really is just an enabler here, but I can see it enabling the creation of communities that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. To pick up on your example of the shy introverted person, they might more easily find like-minded people online than offline.

      I’m not saying that to reinforce the stereotype of the shy, antisocial geek. My point here is more that shy introverted people probably have trouble fitting into the community that surrounds them rather than with communities in general.

      Anyway, I’m not really arguing your points. I think one of the things that fascinates me about this online world is that it lowers barriers so dramatically, that perhaps things aren’t exactly the same in cyberspace as they are in meatspace. But what do I know?

  • Andy

    Yes I do agree completely with you here. Essentially your saying that variations on social communities become possible with – new – technology. You could almost consider it in terms of an evolution of socialization(1); a mutation brought about by a greater number of permutations possible when technology is added to the influencing factors that affect group socialising.

    The loner (interesting you say geek, as I was thinking about the kid who sat reading fantasy books at the back corners of rooms, who thought of people as orcs and elves :) who previously only had the people he could physically interact with, or those he could write snail mail to, as potential friends (or social connections). Now however, through the phenomenon of virtual community he has access to the world. If his stereotype identifies and bonds with only 1 in 500 people, then his odds are significantly improved using the internet as an enabling technology (by orders of magnitude) that he will find a greater number of friends (or social connections).

    The next step I see is when VR becomes as commonplace as what text based social communities are now (ala Facebook) and we see people who will transfer their meaningful lives to a virtual reality. We are seeing that now with MMORPGs, as technology extends so to will the effect on individuals. A point in time will come where people may live in shanty shacks under a bridge in little more than wooden boxes in meatspace, while in a virutal world they are monarchs of their own lands, living in magnificent castles, with subjects who call them lords. Of whom the subjects will be other people who are plugged into this/their reality.

    Frightening or enlightening… who’s going to be able say?! :)


    (1) Refers to the process of learning one’s culture and how to live within it. For the individual it provides the skills and habits necessary for acting and participating within their society. (

    Andys last blog post: WoWarcraft; is the game a game or a job?

    • unwesen

      Actually, social bonds in MMORPGs are kind of funny. Quite often they don’t extend to the real world, at least in my personal experience. There’s a community of sorts, but it’s quite a bit difference from real life communities.

      Part of the problem, I think, is that MMORPGs are silos. It’s funny, on the one hand you have email-like and IRC-like communications channels, friends lists, and all that sort of thing – but none of that automatically transfers to other systems.

      In a digital world, that’s an odd restriction to have. We’re quite used to the fact that somehow most of the people we know occupy a common space in the real world. At least I think it happens surprisingly often that you realize two people you know also know each other, from a different social context. But because we all live together in a comparatively small space, we’re bound to run into each other at some point.

      The same isn’t true for virtual worlds. Yes, I know a fair amount of people play WoW… but all of them play on different servers. There are two ways of bringing these people together, either a concerted effort to all move to the same server (has that ever happened?), or by opening up communications channels – letting people on one server speak with people on another.

      That the second option doesn’t exist is somewhat counterintuitive, given that in the real world, all we need to do to make this sort of thing happen is bake a cake and throw a small party…

      Anyway… I don’t think there was much of a point to that, it’s just another of the weird way in which virtual and real life are oddly different.

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