Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Facebook and the unselfish gene

So I finally did it. As some of you regulars may have noticed, I put the blog on Facebook. And then I instantly became needy and sent out a bulk of emails begging people to like me. I sent out five and since they're very nice friends of mine, they all liked me. And then I thought, "Well, now, my friends' friends' will like me, and then my friends' friends' friends', and then..."

Hmm. That got me thinking. Does it work like with viruses? No, seriously, do "likes" spread like a viral infection in the body? If not, what kind of network do they resemble? Neurons? Random walks? Traffic network? Surely somebody has thought of modeling this -- does anybody know?

I really got curious about this. I logged onto PubMed and did a search under the keyword "Facebook." I got around 200 hits, none of which answered my questions, but I did find a few papers that captured my attention, so I thought I'd list them below.
  • The unselfish gene [1]. Species compete for resources. We've learned in school that natural selection is a competition among the fittest. Philosophers like Hobbes and Machiavelli have stated that humans are essentially selfish, pushing societies to promote self-interest with the use of incentives and punishments. In his review, Dr. Benkler looks at how this line of thinking has changed in the past few years. In fact, we now believe that evolution selects cooperation over competition. The evidence, according to Benkler, doesn't come from evolutionary biology only, but also from sociology, psychology, and economics. And to prove his point, Benkler points to the success of social networks like Facebook, Craigslist, and LinkedIn, which provide emotional, social, and psychological support, gratification, and a great deal of information resources. The sharing of information that goes through the Internet is an indication of cooperation. Indeed, my PubMed search yielded many results on the benefits of Facebook and social networking when it comes to health support groups, health care, and advantages of networking for medical practices. So, I completely agree, except I do find Facebook a little selfish when it comes to... self-promotion. Ahem, yes, I confess I am myself guilty of the crime, since I put my blog in there out of a selfish, egotistical need to have readers...
  • Facebook is smoking [2]. This one sounded intriguing. Does the title imply that Facebook is as addictive as smoking? Or that it's as cancerogenic as smoking? Or maybe, Facebook is smoking on your computer after so much use? Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything besides the title, not even the abstract.
  • Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: effects of exposure to Facebook on self-esteem [3]. Does Facebook enhance or diminish self-esteem? My intuition would be that it requires some solid self-esteem to put yourself "out there." The debate is still very much open, however, some of the literature* seems to indicate that Facebook has beneficial effects on self-esteem. So, stop hiding! Find the guts, go out there, and you'll be a better person! (Yes, yes, I am indeed preaching to myself! Again, guilty.)
* In my literature search, unfortunately, there were numerous papers I didn't have access to.

All of the above is fascinating and interesting, but what about the networking model? I still think a viral infection model might work: you need to re-define parameters such as fitness cost and effective population size. For example, you might send the request to "like you" to, say, 10 friends, but only the ones who will actually click on the like button are the ones who actually "replicate." Say you get 7 likes. Now, all the 7 friends' friends will see the likes, but how many will go ahead and click the like button in turn? That's the effective size population, how many "likes" will actually generate new "likes." In this model there's no immune pressure, but if the effective size is too small, then the infection doesn't take off.

Obviously, this is just my speculations, so I did a second PubMed search and this time I typed "Facebook viral," hoping I'd get some insight on whether Facebook "likes" spread like a virus. This is the only entry I got:
  • Using the Internet and social media to promote condom use in Turkey [4]. Not exactly what I meant in my search, but look at the bright side -- another Facebook success story.
That's all for today. Short post, I know, but hey, all those refreshing clicks on FB to check the number of likes, it's a lot of work, you know?

... Pssst. Hey. If you happen to have a spare second, would you click on the like button up there? ...

Okay, those last two statements were jokes. Seriously. Just give me a pat on the back and my self-esteem will thrive. Promise.

[1] Benkler Y (2011). The unselfish gene. Harvard business review, 89 (7-8) PMID: 21800472

[2] Mgweba L, Dlamini S, Kassim J, Planting T, & Smith D (2009). Facebook is smoking. South African medical journal = Suid-Afrikaanse tydskrif vir geneeskunde, 99 (11) PMID: 20222194

[3] Gonzales AL, & Hancock JT (2011). Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: effects of exposure to Facebook on self-esteem. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 14 (1-2), 79-83 PMID: 21329447

[4] Purdy CH (2011). Using the Internet and social media to promote condom use in Turkey. Reproductive health matters, 19 (37), 157-65 PMID: 21555096

Photo: last dahlias of the season! Focal length 85mm, F-stop 20, shutter speed 1/50, ISO 100. A special thanks goes to my neighbor who does an amazing job growing these beautiful flowers and then kindly lets me photograph them.


  1. So as a self announced anti-Facebook-ite, I found this idea fascinating. Mostly, the unselfishness gene one. I also would argue that Facebook allows the ultimate opportunity for selfishness, forcing other folks to follow one's adventures through picking out a cantaloupe, ostracizing those whose FB needs are different than yours (I confess to this being part of my FB bias), and demanding constant reassurance for every one of your actions posted. Of course, I am also very biased, so I may be full of shit. (It happens.)

    And, despite all these opinions of mine, I had the opportunity to collude in the using of FB to expose a cheating asshole this past weekend and the experience made me uber-giddy and exhilarated--the jumbo sized peach daiquiri didn't hurt, either. (Sidenote--I was in Vegas.) And this made me start to reconsider FB and it's usefulness to society. In my (rather tipsy) inner ramblings, I concluded that FB is a really overt expression of the users' hopes, fears, desires, and angst. Like any extension of raw human emotion, it is as messed up as the humans who use it. So, sometimes it is awesome (good people) and other times it is awful (most people). And maybe, just maybe, my opinions are born in my own insecurities of having my "most people" tendencies showing. Damn, I may now have to move on to hating other things. Like Prius drivers. 

  2. LOL! Who would've known! ;-)

    Well, you know where I stand, so of course I found it fascinating, too... enough to find it worth a post! :)


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