Reply to Sanchez: Don’t We All Agree?

I had hoped to see discussion of the evolved mechanism of preferential attention to and learning from the high in status, and my assertion that it is simultaneously a way in which our species makes culture adaptive in changing circumstances, while also providing individuals a potential pathway to prestige and status. Since none of the three commentators have taken issue with this theory may I assume that they agree that it is correct?

Of course, Sanchez is right to argue that thus far Internet recruitment to terrorist groups has been limited in the United States, and face-to-face recruitment is important. That is why I carefully wrote that “One [Internet] convert may share the newly acquired worldview and values with age-mates, resulting in a cluster of recruits.”

I do not know danah boyd’s work but have no reason to doubt Sanchez’s summary of her findings that “The online world of modern teens, in other words, substantially replicates their offline social worlds, reinforcing rather than disrupting local norms.”  Sanchez goes on to tell us that she reports that the young are not primarily communicating with strangers but with people they know. Unfortunately, these findings are of marginal relevance to the essay. What, for example, of celebrity? Following someone on Twitter and being a fan are forms of communication, one-way communication. So are celebrity endorsements and visits to celebrity websites. Does a young person’s choice of celebrity being followed influence cultural editing – values, behavior, career goals, friendships?[i] If danah boyd’s work answers these questions then it is relevant to my essay. If not, then it is not (or at least, not yet, given that my hope is to encourage the research community to ask questions stemming from the theory of human nature that is evolutionary psychology).

Sanchez also points out that the current generation is less given to breaking the rules than his own was. This comment is interesting but only slightly relevant – nothing in my essay demands that adolescents whose attention is on non-local figures should be particularly unruly. Again, here are some research questions that would yield pertinent data permitting evaluation of the theory: What are young people striving to be, who are their role-models, and what are they learning from them? Are they acquiring socially valuable goals and potentially effective tactics for obtaining them? What proportion of young people pay much attention to Bill Gates and to the life of the late Steve Jobs, as compared to the proportion who are experts on the lives of, say, Kanye West or Lady Gaga? What is the social impact of the displacement of attention from more local figures to international celebrities? Again, these are research questions, and I hope that they will help readers and especially commentators identify relevant from tangential research.

Back when I was still teaching, I would often begin my course on human nature by choosing a couple of current celebrity names and starting a conversation about them. The students invariably knew about the celebrities’ romantic lives in considerable detail, their health, their taste in clothing, their origins, their career trajectory, and their relative standing compared to celebrities in the same category. Then I would ask the students to tell me about a successful, prestigious figure in their own neighborhood. I would usually be met by silence. A similar question about local political figures would garner few facts.

This opening would permit me to reassure them that they had no reason to be ashamed because their preferential attention to the high-in-status evolved mechanism had been adaptive for their ancestors but was now being triggered by the modern mass media, with evolutionarily unanticipated consequences. Celebrity culture is not new, but it has exploded in the age of the Internet. Websites keep fans informed and provide fora for discussion, while Twitter gives the sense of having a personal conversation with a celebrity. Celebrities are an example of the kinds of strangers I had in mind in my essay, strangers whose prestige vastly overpowers that of local figures.

Sanchez writes that “Barkow is nevertheless surely correct that a highly networked and interconnected world is one in which local cultures will not reproduce themselves with the level of uncomplicated fidelity we’ve been accustomed to in most of human history. But neither is it clear this is a wholly negative development.” No, it is not always negative, as Tufekci convincingly argues. But who is suggesting that cultures formerly reproduced with “uncomplicated fidelity”? I don’t know if they ever did (though the rate of change was probably slower, in the past). The issue is that the preferential-attention-to-the-high-in-status mechanism is one way in which cultures have tended to be pruned of useless information while incorporating new and at least sometimes effective information, but that internet prestige has changed their relative proportions. Today we may be editing in a larger proportion of the useless and a smaller proportion of the locally and personally effective, while pertinent information associated with those physically (and even geographically) close to us may fail to be transmitted.[ii] Certainly, when Internet celebrities warn their followers of the grave risks of standard immunizations, while the followers ignore the advice of their own doctors, not merely useless but harmful information is being spread. Of course, celebrities can and often do promote healthy lifestyles or direct their followers’ attention to major social problems, they do not necessarily limit themselves to product endorsements. I am digressing a bit but my point is that fidelity of information transmission is not the issue.

By paying attention to whom is paid attention, researchers will have another tool with which to further understand how modern society and culture are evolving. It is a shame that danah boyd has already used the “it’s complicated” phrase in the title of her book: we can be certain that the words would be applicable to the current effects of the pay-attention-to-and-learn-preferentially-from-the-high-in-status mechanism. Do human societies risk becoming dysfunctional and deeply divided when the young do not agree on who is prestigious and to whom they should attend? Does this process add to political turmoil? If so, then our long-term strategies should include research on how to encourage consensus on who is to be respected.

In the meantime, here is an experiment we can all do: I can usually begin a conversation with parents by saying, “kids, nowadays…”, and then just shaking my head before sitting back to listen. The parents’ discourse will usually allude to their offspring paying much attention to and learning from some nonlocal figure whom the parent knows little about but whom their offspring revere. If my experience turns out to be common then perhaps my essay will help persuade researchers and funding agencies that studying the attend-to-and-learn-preferentially-from-the-high-in-status mechanism would be worthwhile. Even Sanchez might be persuaded.



[i] For an introduction to the evolutionary study of celebrity see:  De Backer, Charlotte. (2012). “Blinded by the Starlight: An Evolutionary Framework for Studying Celebrity Culture and Fandom.” Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 144-151.

[ii] This is my contention and belief but I would love to see research on the issue, especially if the research shows that I am wrong. More likely, it will find that it is true only under specific circumstances.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jerome H. Barkow describes how cultures perpetuate and improve themselves - and how that process can dramatically break down. He suggests that the Internet is creating the conditions for a potentially disastrous social breakdown: When youth no longer respect and emulate high-status transmitters of culture, cultural knowledge is lost. And when that happens, cultures will dramatically change. With this change many adaptive behaviors may disappear, although we cannot say for sure just what will remain afterward. The dramatic substitution of sports stars and entertainers for local authority figures has been going on for quite some time, and its effects have only accelerated in the age of social media.

Response Essays

  • Donald J. Boudreaux accepts that social media have been transformative, but he doubts that “unsavory cultural consequences” are on the way. Living standards are the highest they have ever been, and they continue to rise. Material wealth has risen, he thinks, particularly because of rising knowledge - knowledge about the demand for certain products, knowledge about how the physical world works, knowledge about production and distribution techniques, and knowledge about local opportunities. Like other forms of media that have gone before them, social media have allowed us to trade and combine good ideas and bits of useful local knowledge that otherwise might never have been put to use. So while we can’t say for certain that we aren’t undermining the channels of cultural transmission, the future still looks brighter than ever, and fast, cheap communication itself is a big part of why it does.

  • Zeynep Tufekci argues that the Internet is replacing former modes of cultural transmission. But for many of us, it’s not replacing traditional local elders - it’s replacing the homogeneous, carefully produced mass media of the twentieth century. Now, rather than seeing only what the media industry wants us to see, we interact with celebrities in a much more personal, unmediated way. We also have many more of them - not just athletes, actors, and pop stars, but astrophysicists, philosophers, and the creators of YouTube videos can all serve as “celebrities” with fans of their own. On the personal level, although we now migrate more than ever, the Internet allows us to keep in touch with the cultures where we grew up. Social media’s role in cultural transmission is thus exceptionally complex, and it is not simply a matter of replacing static and traditional modes of cultural transmission with new and disruptive ones.

  • Julian Sanchez argues that the Internet has indeed wrought significant cultural change. But fears of online jihadism have been exaggerated; face-to-face recruitment remains a more potent method, it would appear, than Twitter. Apart from that, American teens nowadays seem remarkably well-behaved, and their online social activities mostly mirror their offline ones. And while some cultural knowledge has been lost, that in part has been the result of technological change rendering some careers obsolete while creating some new ones. It is ultimately unclear why we should be afraid of these new forms of cultural transmission, or the content that they convey.