It is without a semblance of doubt that the internet has transformed the way we communicate. We can connect and share information on a large scale from miles across in a short amount of time. This was not possible before. Online social networks allow us to engage with large groups of people. Although the world is now connected more than ever, the value of these connections is worth questioning. There are social media users with “millions of online friends”. What then warrants thinking is whether we are less lonely today in the information age than we were before the advent of the internet.
According to ‘social brain hypothesis’, evolution of human intelligence is attributable to the complex social systems in which we thrive, and not to our relationship with the ecosystem. It is supported by the evidence that brain sizes in primates correlate to sizes of their social groups. Much as we may like to think this is true, it is not because correlation does not show causation. In humans, the complexity of relationships is determined by the level of intelligence of individuals. It is not the other way round.
The hypothesis also posits that we are incapable of maintaining more than a certain number of relationships. This limit apparently applies even to online social networks since our cognitive faculties do not permit beyond that. But in reality, humans are capable of overcoming cognitive restrictions by processing social information differently. In addition, some people are better at managing social lives than others and it has got nothing to do with intelligence or brain volume.
The point here is not that some individuals with large social groups are unintelligent but rather that some intelligent individuals socialize in small groups. A more social life does not imply less loneliness, and this variance is best ascribed to personality traits such as extraversion and introversion. It can be argued that most social media users have superficial relationships because of the way online social networks are designed and used. However, users who engage with others report lower levels of loneliness than passive users. Our well-being and the strength of connections therefore depend more on the quality and less on the mode of interaction.