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To say humanity is built on communities is an understatement. Our ability to form communities based on shared values rather than family bloodlines has literally allowed us to conquer the world.

Community requires shared values or purpose and the creation of connections between its members. Some academics like Yuval Noah Harari have argued that our ability to create shared narratives is what sets us apart from other species.

The concept of human connection is hard to quantify, but for the sake of this discussion, think of it as the emotional feeling of the deep connection we experience when we feel heard and understood by fellow human beings.

By our nature, we crave that feeling.

So why does social media mainly run on social transactions rather than social connections?

Most of the actions taken on social media are transactional by nature - we like a post, we share, we swipe, we subscribe, we give money to a content provider, we react with emojis. Sure we also occasionally post, but mostly even our posts are transactional.

Social transactions are an important part of the human condition - when someone does something that affects someone else, there is an evolutionary response to balance that action.

For example, if someone does you a favour, you may feel you ‘owe’ them. Similarly, if someone does something that hurts you, you may feel you deserve ‘justice.’ One theory is that we evolved this desire for social balance as a mechanism to encourage us to foster stronger relationships with others in our community.

Looking at it from that angle, social transactions sound like an important part of our lives - so what’s the problem with using them in social media?

The sort of communities and connections we really value are ones based on unconditional support, trust and love. It’s exhausting to keep track of the social balances in our communities, we just want to be accepted and know that people are there for us. Social transactions are part of building and maintaining this, but at the core there needs to be something deeper and more enduring.

A community based solely on transactions is commerce, not community. A relationship based purely on transactions is unhealthy and unfulfilling. As they say, you can’t buy love.

So, if what we really want is social connection - why are we so addicted to social media?

The social media addiction equation

What we crave is communities and deep connections; but what social media giants have mastered is how to distract our brains with a constant stream of transactions that flow through our feeds. Part of the reason this works so well is our old friend and master, dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in our brain’s reward system. Positive transactions online are rewarded with pleasurable short-term releases of dopamine, encouraging us to seek out more.

In physical social interactions, dopamine pushes us to build deeper understanding and connection with our peers. It’s also released when laughing together, sharing personal stories, empathy or understanding. Again, evolution is in the background steering our brains and behaviours towards closer connections - using a plethora of tools like tone of voice, touch, proximity, body language, facial expressions, eye contact, pupil dilation and even pheromones…

…most of which social media either does really badly, or can’t do at all.

Technologists have tried various methods to approximate non-verbal communication online. From emojis to video to virtual reality - none of them have managed to bridge the gap.

Which is why, for the most part social media is still running on fairly basic social transactions that deliver enough dopamine to keep people coming back for more, but generally don’t allow deep enough human communication to move relationships to the next level.

Computers understand transactions, and can easily throw their raw power at analysing the number of reactions a post receives or time spent watching a video. Higher number = good, so the computer delivers the posts that generate higher numbers, thus providing the dopamine fix. Rinse and repeat.

Can technology save our deeper connections and communities?

UpShift is a tech company, so you might expect me to say yes. But the answers are more complex. Technology is a tool - it’s only at its best when directed correctly by humans.

We’re seeing movements away from the ‘everything to everyone’ behemoths like Facebook, towards smaller interest-based online communities. Subreddits, Discord servers & chat groups are flourishing as people seek closer, more meaningful interactions. While these are unlikely to ever give the same level of connection as a late night chat on the couch, they allow people to bond over shared values or interests and build their relationships from there.

Technology alone can’t save our communities and relationships. It will try, because the conglomerates need those engagement numbers to bring in the money, and maybe in some cases it will spark a connection - but ultimately, tech in isolation won’t ever be enough.

Instead, we need to look for human solutions for one of the most central and important reasons for human existence - the fostering of deep, connected communities and relationships based on shared values, empathy, trust - and the type of steadfast support that extends far beyond clicking the ‘like’ button.

Banner Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

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