Why are human beings so successful? That is, “successful” in the sense that we have become very numerous, and dominate our planet. Many answers can be suggested, but maybe the really important point is our capacity for co-operation. Other animals do this of course – who can forget tv footage of the Emperor Penguins? They are the only native species that can survive the Antarctic winter, and they do it by huddling together, taking turns to bear the brunt of the wind.
But human have taken it to a whole different level – we co-operate in highly sophisticated ways and have developed patterns of working together not just in small groups but in units of millions. This has allowed us to achieve extraordinary things.
One aspect of this propensity to co-operate is that we don’t really cope very well on our own. We are inter-dependent, with a powerful need to belong. This has been recognised and expressed by poets in every generation. As the writers of Genesis put it, “It is not good that the man should be alone”, or John Donne – “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”. I think this is the most powerful aspect of what religion provides to many people. Indeed, my observation is that for many people who practice a religion, this sense of belonging can be more important than issues of belief or behaviour.
All of which points to one of the most intriguing aspects of social media to me. As the “social” suggests, it is really all about belonging. Facebook shows that you belong with a group of friends, and reinforces those ties. LinkedIn shows that you belong with a network of work-related contacts. Both tools offer a bewildering array of “groups” you can join if you feel you want to belong to something bigger than just your network.
But Twitter is perhaps the most interesting of all, because instead of just reinforcing existing ties, where you already belong, it allows you to create new ties. By following someone on Twitter, you belong to a sort of fan club, hence the dominance of pop stars and celebrities among those who are most followed. But in time heavy Twitter users start finding and following interesting new people, maybe interacting with them. It is possible to “meet” people on Twitter, and form communities based around shared interests. You have conversations, respond to each other, and occasionally even meet up in real life. You start to belong to a new community, with all the benefits and problems that entails.
Twitter might not spell the beginning of the end for religion, which after all has a head start of several millennia. But it does provide a genuinely new way for us to fulfil some of our deepest needs – to connect and form new communities. This is why it has moved so fast from geeky niche interest to the mass market. And this is why I am increasingly sure that Twitter, or whatever it morphs into over time, will change our world.