How Humans Evolved To Need Social Media

Patrick Mulford, CCO of theAudience, explains how social media has become a central character in the story of the human race.

The way Patrick Mulford sees it, the invention of social media was inevitable; a natural outcome of human evolution. From cave paintings, to a teenager’s bedroom wall, to digital profiles; we have always felt the impulse to tell stories and signal who we are. Speaking at Social Media Week Chicago, Mulford (CCO at theAudience) explains how self-expression is a fundamental human need.


“Storytelling is an integral part of the human condition,” he says. “We even dream in stories; it’s hardwired into the brain.” Stories make concepts memorable, he explains, whether they be religious principles, moral codes of conduct, or even trivial things like gossip. “Stories have been the vehicle for passing on truths from person to person for thousands of years.”

Stories also engender personal connections; another deep-seated need. The commonly accepted wisdom dictates that human beings can only deal with around 150 social connections at a time, and beyond that we resort to more formal lines of communication. Examples of this are recurrent throughout history, in villages, marketplaces and even the Roman military. Over the course of the last century, as industrialisation caused people to move away from smaller communities into cities and even abroad, people developed other means of staying connected across the social diaspora; the telephone, the internet, and ultimately, social media.

And in the online world, Facebook is the closest thing we have to a universal language. “Facebook is fast becoming the homepage of the internet,” says Mulford. If Facebook is the place for our default self, and LinkedIn is where we cultivate our professional image, then Instagram is where we curate and showcase our idealised lives. “We post one in ten of the selfies that we actually take,” says Mulford. “Time and diligence goes into creating our best selves, into expressing just a single facet of our personality.”

Together, all of these networks form “an emotional mosaic of your identity,” he says.  Years ago, a person’s identity was primarily shaped and informed by their parents and their community. In the aftermath of the Second World War, young people were more empowered to express themselves in different ways, leading to the emergence of countercultures, which encompassed all kinds of different philosophies. In 2016, such subcultures are more complex and nuanced than the old school “mod vs. rocker” delineation.  “These identities have now fragmented,” says Mulford. “In the course of a day you can be five different people, and every one of those cultural choices has its own language and social networks.”

To look at social media as a marketing platform is woefully short-sighted; it’s a living ecosystem, a surrogate for the real-life social networks that have dispersed over time. It’s crucial for brands to understand why people use social, whether that be to tell their stories, to frame their personal reality, or to seek validation. “Social media allows us to evaluate what’s important in the world, and a brand is only ever as important as the values it represents,” say Mulford.

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