The Digital Revolution & Human Evolution

“Tribalism is a fundamental human trait.”  So says the Pulitzer Prize-wining Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson in his book The Social Conquest of Earth.  He argues that group selection – the biological need to be part of a group – is a premier driving force of evolution.  “To form groups, drawing visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups – these are among the absolute universals of human nature and hence of culture.”

Nowhere is this more evident in the modern world than in the rise of social media and the myriad micro-niche blogs available. Nearly two-thirds of American adults use social networking sites, according to Pew Research.  And that number continues to grow every year.  In this modern age, the social media that we associate with shapes our behavior, our friendships, and our sense of belonging. 

Let’s look at teenagers, for example.  Pew Research talks about how friendships have changed in the modern age and the importance that technology plays in these friendships.  Fifty-seven percent of teens have made friends online; and 72% “spend time” with their friends via social media.  Although the tools are modern, the fundamental behavior of spending time with like-minded people has not changed since humans gained sentiency. 

And as we dig further into which networking tools young people are using, we can still see remnants of the proverbial hunters versus the gatherers.  Video gaming is much more prevalent among young males and they are more likely to use online games as conduits for conversations with friends.  It could be argued that they still have a need for competition amongst each other and a biological need to be victorious (and thus win the girl).  Young females, on the other hand, are more likely to use text messaging and apps such as Snapchat to build friendships (and probably talk about boys).  These are the same friendships that would have been built while gathering berries, or at a quilting bee, or other group activity.  The fundamental need to belong has not changed – only the methods.

As advertisers we would be wise to consider the “biology” of social media when deciding the best channels to use to reach target audiences.  While Facebook and YouTube may be the channels with the largest number of page views, they may not be the most devoted to certain causes and behaviors.  Looking deeper into what make a certain target audience feel a sense of belonging may go farther in turning fans into ambassadors.  Instead of being afraid or cautious about advertising on social media, we can look at it as simply filling a biological need for humans to evolve.   

As Wilson states, “we have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”  As lofty as this sounds, just remember, it’s in our biology.

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