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Social technologies sans social intelligence*

M S Sridhar@

Technology has genuinely shrunk the world on a social level. Communication technologies in
general and the Internet in particular are responsible for cutting geographical distance and
creating the ‘global village’. Network technologies like FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc. have
tremendously boosted the traffic as well as number and size of social networks of individuals.
As a result today’s netizen boast of thousands of mouse-click friends across globe and they are
able to continuously and instantly in touch with them. The famous small world experiment
by Stanley Milgram in 1960s determining the path length for social networks of people in the
United States found that on an average everyone is approximately six steps away (six degrees
of separation) of introduction from a person to any other person in a chain with ‘a friend of a
friend’ like statement. Richard Wiseman repeated the experiment in Britain with 100 randomly
selected persons out of 500 volunteers and found that Britain (in 2003) is a much smaller world
than America in 1960s with four degrees of separation. Wiseman showed that lucky people
frequently experience the small-world phenomenon and that such ‘lucky’ meetings have a
dramatic and positive effect on their lives. Recently, Yahoo also repeated the small world
experiment using FaceBook. No doubt, ‘the small world experiment’ demonstrated the
possibility of epidemic diffusion of information, viral marketing, ‘the luck factor’ and other
benefits of networks. But, whether you are six-degree separated or four-degree separated in the
chain with a mouse-click friendship or ‘a friend of a friend’ kind of link/ relation, the person at the
other end of such a chain is not your true friend because the ‘transitivity’ property is not valid in
this kind of relation (i.e., A is a friend of B and B is a friend of C does not assure that A is a
friend of C).

The ‘social’ part of the Internet is undoubtedly becoming the great revolution with empowerment
and transparency. E-learning and virtual classrooms are believed to promote increased social
interaction so that students can collaborate, discuss, review ideas and present solutions on
network. Companies, despite employees already overloaded with data, are eager to respond on
priority to complaints on social networks. Such ‘data deluge’ from social networks is expected to
increase by 40 times in the next 10 years. Many managers believe that such data smog has
affected their personal relationships. In this sense the question raised is that whether social
technologies are truly democratizing the power from selected few to many (Economist, Dec 31,
2011). Yes, it is true that an ordinary netizen can easily broadcast his opinion and expand his
network as he wishes. Such an empowerment and expansion of network might work
occasionally well for political campaign and viral marketing. But it is the ‘rarity’ that adds value to
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anything and the ‘abundance’ that brings it down. As more and more tweets/messages pour in
on social networks, less and less attention is paid to individual messages. The logic is akin to
use of ‘inverse frequency of terms’ in information retrieval, i.e., a term occurring more frequently
in a document is given less weightage and one that occurs rarely is given more weightage in
indexing and retrieval. The average netizen is required to put more efforts and time to detect
useful information in an ever increasing clutter of social networks. Generally, social networks
(and even the groups formed) lack clear specific purpose and focus; anybody can post anything
and make it look like a public rest room.

Digital literacy, a pre-requisite to reap the fruits of the social technologies, has some de-
humanizing effects like loss of human touch, personal greeting and writing skill. The important
question is whether the blossoming social networks backed by social technologies have
enhanced social intelligence of network members (nteizen) is quite doubtful. Social intelligence,
as explained by Tony Buzan (the power of social intelligence, 2002), is the degree to which we
get along with and relate to other people around us and is one of the ten intelligences (the other
being verbal, numerical, spatial, creative, sensual, physical, personal, sexual and spiritual).
Social intelligence is characterized by self-confidence, a vision of life, an abiding interest in
other people, respect for others, empathy, use of body language, clarity about when to speak
and when to listen and above all a positive attitude. Overt gracious behaviour of those socially
intelligent are showing appreciation, saying thanks, greeting, be sensitive to others body
language, read the subtle signals people make unconsciously, treating each person as unique
and worthy of respect, etc. Thus none of the characteristics of social intelligence are directly
supported/ promoted by social technologies. Interestingly, digital nomads are so pre-occupied
with their virtual world even in public places they fail to notice the person next to them. On the
other hand, there is a shrinking of real-life social networks with reduction in time spent with
friends and family. As a result, no greetings, no thanking and care, but only speed and coverage
are emphasized. In other words, getting closer with someone online is at the cost of
attentiveness towards others encountered physically.

Further, human evolution took place when men lived in small groups on a face-to-face basis
much before agriculture era. Naturally the adaptive mechanism of human biology is tuned to
have strong feelings about few people, short distances and in brief intervals of time. Thus there
exists a natural limit to social channel capacity, the amount of space in the brain for certain kind
of information, of human beings. A normal human being is able to distinguish about 6 or 7 finer
categories of information like sound level, sugar level in tea and so on. However in case of
strong feelings like death or devastating events, he could accommodate and remember 10 to 15

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people known to him. On the other hand, the number of possible connections increases
dramatically as the number of members increase in the network. A small increase in the size of
the group creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden. For example, in a group
of 5, one has to keep track of 10 relationships and a just three-fold increase from a group of 5 to
15 increases relationships by more than ten-fold from 10 to 105. In other words, the amount of
information processing required to ‘know’ other members of network increases enormously in
that way. Anthropologists derived ‘the rule of 150’ for social channel capacity of human beings
stating that 150 is the maximum number of individuals with whom one can have genuinely social
relationship. Interestingly pre-historic hunter societies use to split their colony once it
approached 150.
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Editorial in SRELS Journal of Information Management, February 2013, v. 50 (1) 1-2.
@
Former Head, Library & Documentation ISRO Satellite Centre, Bangalore. Address: 1103, ‘Mirle
House’, 19th B Main, J P Nagar 2nd Phase, Bangalore – 560078; E-mail: mirlesridhar@gmail.com