5.13 Social Health

Social health is the degree to which people in a society support synergy. Social evolution requires a certain degree of social health, e.g. citizens who can’t even conceive of freedom are unlikely to achieve it. Hence the invention of democracy had several false starts before succeeding, e.g. the French revolution gave the people freedom, but giving a long oppressed people sudden freedom by violent means resulted in anarchy. The French Revolution was followed by The Reign of Terror, then the rule of the autocratic Emperor Napoleon, i.e. the social system devolved first to anarchy and then back to a dictatorship. Yet when America and England tried the same social evolution, it worked and today it is unclear why our predecessors ever settled for less. The answer proposed here is social health.

The synergy of a society depends on the social health of its citizens. Democracies out-produce autocracies because they produce more and online is no different (Beer & Burrows, 2007), and they produce more because freedom increases competence and legitimacy increases social synergies. Social evolution requires citizen evolution because it depends on how people see others and themselves. Social health has also been called social capital, defined as the “… norms and networks facilitating collective action for mutual benefits(Woolcock, 1998).

Unlike ants, people have to learn to socialize, e.g. young soccer players trail the ball like a cloud of insects, as each tries to individually get the ball and score a goal. As a result, they get in each others way and the team results are poor. Only with social training do players learn to play positions like forward or fullback, and engage in social acts like passing the ball for the team. People are no more born knowing how to work together than they are born knowing how to kick a ball – they have to learn it. Social health is thus a product of upbringing and education.

As one can measure individual skills, so one can measure social synergy, e.g. if a group offers cheap coffee on an “honesty” system of 25¢ per cup, what percentage cheat and take the coffee but leave no money? If everyone defects and takes the coffee for free, the synergy (and coffee) fails. Fast-food chains in different suburbs illustrate that the synergy of self-service doesn’t always work. A self-service system lets customers help themselves to tea, coffee, milk and sugar etc. This speeds up the service considerably, as servers just give customers a cup and leave the rest to them. Yet when McDonalds tries to do this in an area where social health is low, for whatever reason, customers loot beverage resources like sugar and napkins. To stop this, goods must be kept behind the counter and handed out, giving long lines as servers must pour the milk and get the sugar for each customer. Similarly, the social invention of supermarkets required a certain amount of customer social health. Traditional shopkeepers kept goods behind the counter to prevent theft. Only when most customers do not steal, can goods go out on shelves for customer self-help, improving efficiency enormously.

The percentage who defect on social synergies affects social performance. As online communities depend on synergy, social health is equally important online. Online social systems are subject to natural selection, as people flow into communities that perform and out of those that do not. A physical barrier like the Berlin Wall can stop flows for a while but even it was unsustainable. In an Internet without borders, people join and leave communities with the click of a mouse.

Online communities can improve their social health; e.g. by a constitution that members accept as they register, by routine posts to remind people of ethics, or by moderation. People then learn what is best for the group. If senior members help new members, the newcomers are more likely to give back. Banning trolls also raises the social health of the group if not too oppressive. Regular feedback of a group defection measure, like the number of posts deleted by moderators, would raise social health awareness and improve social performance.