Peak Social

Social is one of those lovely words that can be added to anything to make it better.

Media? Nah. Social media.

Learning? Nah. Social learning.

Networks? Nah. Social networks.

And the list goes on. It’s almost as if social is a condiment to be added to whatever concept lacks spice and flavour.

Google and Facebook are battling for supremacy at the intersection of information and social. Google states its goal as being one of “organizing the worlds information”. Facebook wants to help you “you connect and share with the people in your life”. Facebook is winning – or so it is commonly thought. But it shouldn’t be. And if Google had the conviction to stick to its information worldview, it would win in the long run. Instead, Google has acquiesced its view and adopted Facebook’s.

Dunbar and Shultz argue that significant human evolution in intelligence occurred due to the “computational demands of living in large, complex societies that selected for large brains”. Similarly, Mesoudi, Whiten, & Dunbar’s research states that social information receives preference for cultural transmission.

If this hypothesis holds true, then humanity has gained astounding intelligence benefits because of social complexity.


Humanity has hit Peak Social – the point at which we can gain no new evolutionary or developmental intellectual advantage from social activity.

Perhaps the most fundamental human trait, after fulfilling biological needs of food, shelter, and procreation, is the desire to impose order on and make sense of the world. We have, historically, activated social attributes in order to manage information complexity. Language is social (Wittgenstein and Vygotsky both attribute the value of language in giving birth to thought). Artifacts – paintings, sculpture, and videos – are simultaneously an expression of individual understanding and a means to enact social and participatory sensemaking.

I believe that humanity’s sensemaking is dominant and social is recessive, activated primarily to serve sensemaking and wayfinding goals and activities. My colleague at Athabasca, Jon Dron, prefers the less radical view that the social is a necessary and sufficient condition for sensemaking. Regardless of ones preferred view, there is an obvious relationship between our capacity to make sense of the world and the need for social networks and systems to do so.

Early information overload indicates a departure from social means of learning and sensemaking. Several hundred years ago (if we set aside geographic constraints of language and libraries, it was several thousand years), humanity crossed a threshold where what was known by humanity could no longer be known by a single person. To combat this deficiency, methods and techniques like indexes and encyclopedias were developed. The thing that pointed to another thing had to grow in encompassing scope. An article in Diderot’s encyclopedia came to stand for a book. Sensemaking broke from social boundaries and moved into the domain of non-human devices.

The development of the telegraph, telephone, and eventually the internet amplified and joined communication and information systems. Suddenly, what was communicated was no longer about information only, but was itself information – captured, stored, and analyzable in a database.

And it is here that we hit peak social. We’ve clustered and sub-clustered our social relations. We’ve fragmented our information sources down to tweets and status updates. A tweet now points to a revolution in the Middle East. Or the IMF chief’s actions in New York. While social is lovely, warm, comfortable, human, we need to start thinking about what’s next in human development. While social will be a huge part of it, it must give way to methods that contribute to, rather than cluster, reduce, sub-network, and silo, sensemaking capacity.

Sensors now automatically collect data in the absence of human involvement. Increase in computing power and data quantity promise alternative models of science. Information is no longer something humans seek – it is now starting to seek us.

The next evolutionary surge for humanity will be driven by increased reliance on automated systems for information capture and analysis. The infrastructure – the internet and mobile technologies – is already in place. The data being generated is poorly analyzed by individuals (numerous companies are rather eager to do it, but those pesky privacy laws are a problem).

5 Responses to “Peak Social”

  1. Jon Dron says:

    Small correction – I think that the social is a necessary but NOT sufficient condition for sense making :-)

  2. Susan Bainbridge says:

    I wonder if history will agree with you and view Web 2.0 as the explosion of a massive knowledge retrieval system, but as it evolves into Web 3.0 and further, and knowledge begins to ‘find us’; then as the dust settles individuals will be able to balance their social connections with deeper learning and have time to review, think and construct (socially and individually) again.
    The current challenge is to introduce students to enough Web 2.0 applications to keep their skills ‘cutting edge’ while at the same time, finding the hours in the day to process the new information and construct meaning.

  3. peps mccrea says:

    Interesting. Although I reckon human evolution kicked the bucket a while ago. And if anything were to kick it off again, then technology might be the catalyst…

  4. Lisa M Lane says:

    Very enlightening, especially as read by someone who has disliked the tipping of the “knowledge” scale toward learning in groups and away from individual cognition. If we are at Peak Social, perhaps it’s because we’re in a social hype cycle, where everything is only real if it’s shared.

    I still think that sensemaking is primarily individual, that it takes place inside the self, though informed a great deal by our society, of course.

    Google should indeed stick to its initial premise of being the world’s biggest catalog of information, of easing retrieval and stockpiling books and artifacts in searchable form. Facebook may be where we play and share, but what will there be to share unless we can source information individually, using the various affordances provided not only by Google but by the many information filters yet to come? (I don’t yet think the information will find us, at least not until we work with those settings.)

    But if you are of the view that the “social” stuff threatens to fragment and cluster and silo sensemaking, what then of connectivism?

  5. Hi Lisa – I’d love to provide a longer response, but time is tight. Short answer: with connectivism, the emphasis has always been on distribution and connectedness of knowledge and learning. Social networks are one way of “being distributed”. Technological and informational networks are another. While people may have certain social limits to sensemaking, visualization tools, recommender systems, and similar technologically-mediated models scale beyond what we can do through social networks.