So why was I sharing a picture of a roast chicken (food source) at a Spanish restaurant in NYC (foraging spot) with Foodspotting.com (my tribe)? I’m not getting paid for this activity, though the cost of taking the pic and uploading is vanishingly small. Am I being purely altruistic or is something else at work?
Inspired recently by Clay Shirky’s talk on his newest book, Cognitive Surplus, I took a brief tour through some of the foundational ideas behind generosity and altruism.
Our kindness to strangers may be mostly in our genes, but as Shirky and other point have pointed out, being in a network has its own benefits.
The big idea from evolutionary theory is that altruism doesn’t exist: in nature there’s a benefit to making an immediate sacrifice. The term “reciprocal altruism” was coined by influential (some say, the most influential) 20th century biologist Robert Trivers to describe how our genes make survival calculations that seem counter-productive but in fact are long-term beneficial. His 1971 paper, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism, which is still very readable, unites game theory and evolutionary biology.
Trivers shows how the classic prisoner’s dilemma game between two players—cooperate vs. cheat, where cheating has the highest payoff and cooperation the second highest— has an optimal strategy of cooperation when repeatedly played. In one of many illuminating examples, Trivers explains that overall you’re actually reducing your chances of dying by jumping into the river to save an unrelated drowning person … if you expect to be in the same situation and the other person returns the favor. I scratch your back, you pick the mites off of mine.
This groundbreaking paper puts this green-eyeshade altruism to work to explain all kinds of paradoxical behaviors that had puzzled biologists: self-sacrificing birds squawking warning calls to the flock when predators arrive, and more to the point, early humans cooperating in food sharing and knowledge.
So am I sharing my food pics (and tweets and comments and blog posts) on social networking sites because the genes that control my altruistic food behavior helped early hominids survive and is still helping me, but is not nearly as adaptive?
Could be. As a thinking homo consumerist, I’m not sure that the economic benefits of sharing food pictures are critical to my survival.
Though reciprocal altruism does explain why some social networking sites benefit from restricted invite-only memberships: it prevents potentially non-contributing members who would still gain value but could potentially crowd out productive contributors. Sites such as Forrest, which provides valuable development tips, may need this kind of protection.
For “low value” food sites, I know that I like helping others navigate the restaurant scene and I’m interested in showcasing my knowledge of food preparation and food sources. Why do I do this?
What Shirky and others have pointed out (see Robert Putnam) is that these displays of generosity and mastery are key to what makes social networks tick. The goal in social networks—Twitter, Facebook, Aardvark, Foodspotting—is to make more connections and accumulate social capital, a loose term to describe friendships, trust, and relationships in networks.
Ultimately, there may be physical benefits to these social connections—and some have pointed to the connection between strong social capital and economic development—but it appears we just like to tweet for the sake of tweeting.
I’m sure someone will find a gene for that as well.
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- Book Review – The Price of Altruism – By Oren Harman (nytimes.com)
- The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism (docstoc.com)
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