Does the People Equation Include Chimps?

by Jennifer Miller on July 3, 2009

in Communication, Social Media

I took the kids to the zoo today.  While checking out the bonobo chimpanzees, I noticed an educational sign that said: “[For chimps…] Mutual grooming helps ease the stress of daily life and increases social bonds.”


For some strange reason, Twitter popped into my head.  Immediately, the Internal Censors in my head started blaring…. “Don’t you DARE compare your Tweeps to Chimps.”

Let me be clear:  this post does not suggest that humans are chimps, or that they work with chimps, even though recent TV ads suggest differently. Although, don’t those ads just crack you up?  If we’re being totally honest with ourselves, there are times when it can sometime feel like we are working with chimps.  But is that a good or bad thing?  The ad suggests of course, that it’s not a good thing— that the chimps are undisciplined, messy and generally too chaotic to deal with. The implication is that as humans we are better than that and therefore deserve a more civilized workplace. Indeed, many would argue that this is true. 

But still, the notion intrigues me and just won’t go away. Here’s my thought process: a big part of the human experience seeks to reach out and connect with others.  Clearly, this need has been playing out recently with the meteoric rise of social networking sites.  So, if social behavior is a part of a chimp’s experience and indeed “grooming helps increase social bonds”—what’s human equivalent of a chimp’s mutual grooming?

In the case of Twitter, I suggest that retweets, #followfridays and so on are forms of mutual grooming…ways to build bonds with others.  True, it’s a more sophisticated way that uses higher-level thinking.  But the underlying desire to connect with others is the same. Primatologist Frans de Waal says  “Humaneness is grounded in social instinct that we share with other animals” (See full article.) 

It’s humanity that sets us apart from the other creatures in our world, yet that very humanity need not isolate us.  Is Twitter (or Facebook, or LinkedIn) a form of stress release to you?  Can it help you build bonds that are useful and productive? I’ll leave that discussion to our social media expert friends like Pete Cashmore  and and Chris Brogan  and others.

For today, I simply say that in attempting to “master the people equation” we can look to our chimp friends for inspiration. Look past the poo tossing and into the more humane acts of connection, empathy and support for one’s group.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jane July 7, 2009 at 5:41 am

Without actually stating it, your article tells the truth of what studies of human behavior have proven. We are born with a need for relatioships. While they are not human beings, there are enough similarities in the animal kingdom to support the hypothesis that anything that breathes ‘attracts’ some form of relationship. Back to your topic though. In the chaotic lifestream we all experience, there are few opportunities to connect in person and even fewer opportunities to stay connected to those we want a sustaining relationship with. Whether personal or academic, we have many reasons to nurture relationships. Social media allows us to stay connected, create new connections, share personal insights, gain knowledge, and even sometimes live precariously through the fun antics of others. We even learn to be empathetic and see things differently through the blurring of lines that don’t show up across social media. I need to stop monkeying around – and do something really productive today.

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