A Nanosecond of Deference

Every time I Twitter, which is more and more often these days, I think about what evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller told the New York Times a few weeks ago about a different topic, the futility of consumerism. It seems like he should have been talking about Twitter:

“Evolution is good at getting us to avoid death, desperation and celibacy, but it’s not that good at getting us to feel happy,” he says, calling our desire to impress strangers a quirky evolutionary byproduct of a smaller social world.

“We evolved as social primates who hardly ever encountered strangers in prehistory,” Dr. Miller says. “So we instinctively treat all strangers as if they’re potential mates or friends or enemies. But your happiness and survival today don’t depend on your relationships with strangers. It doesn’t matter whether you get a nanosecond of deference from a shopkeeper or a stranger in an airport.”

Since we don’t have to worry about dying of starvation and most Twitterers are safely post-celibate, all we have to live for now is that nanosecond of deference from strangers, which is why so many folks take the measure of their  prestige each morning — it is a simple number now — by counting the number of Twitter followers they won or lost.

Another way of saying this is that Twitter has turned us into a nation of Tila Tequilas, the woman who was first to get a million MySpace followers. Whatever fig-leaf of intimacy Facebook tried to protect for us non-Tequilas by securing our updates to a select group of friends has been traded in for a shot at small-time celebrity.

It’s hard to say whether that will really make us happy. Redfin’s Sasha Aickin somehow persuaded me to watch Tila Tequila’s MTV reality show, a grotesque affront to human dignity that he now claims to have recommended in an ironic way; what made it hard to bear wasn’t how silly everyone was being, but just how unhappy they all seemed vying for attention.

Would they be happier if they were competing in a real jungle for sex and food? Or is it better to fight for the attention of strangers?


  • BradB

    Thats great. When are you guys going to add Terrain to the Maps?

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/judeoreilley heyjudeseattle

    Thanks for the post!

    I’m struggling going from Dr. Miller’s quote to Twitter to Tila Tequila. I’ve never watched the show, but I do love me some Twitter. For me, it’s not about followers (or even RTs), it’s about the weird and wonderful things that often come back if you have the courage to put something out there. The randomness of it appeals to me. (That being said, I love Twitter as a extension of blogging…not for random status updates.)

    As for Dr. Miller’s quote, doesn’t a part of our happiness depend on the kindness of strangers? I enjoy relating to the person that pours my latte, takes my call or brings my lunch. On a eudaemonic level, there’s a psychic pay-off in treating and being treated with respect. On a practical, evolutionary level, there’s also value in not having your latte cold, your time wasted or your food poisoned.

  • JanelleS

    Daniel Brooks said it best: “Tila Tequila isn’t a bisexual. She’s a MEsexual.” Man, that guy is a genius.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Heyjudeseattle, those are really wise statements. Maybe our survival doesn’t depend on strangers, but our well-being does.