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Digital allogrooming: why do we tweet so much about sport?

Social Grooming

Sport is one of the great divides on Twitter. Fans descend into atavistic tribalism or pontificate about strategy and tactics while non-fans head for the digital hills – anything to shut out the noise. Twitter is chaos for an hour or two, and then the final whistle blows and life goes on.

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A few weeks ago, I found myself having an actual real life face-to-face conversation with a fellow denizen of Twitter. Naturally, we were scrolling through our timelines at the time. “Why do people tweet about sport?” she said. “It’s not as if anybody cares about what they have to say.”

“I think it’s about social bonding,” I suggested. “That’s what matters: that people see you expressing an opinion, not so much the content of the opinion itself.”

I thought about it a bit more. Could sports tweets be a form of digital allogrooming? Could that kind of uniquely visible and public sounding off about Robin Van Persie fulfill much the same function as vervet monkeys combing through each other’s fur in order to enhance social bonds and ensure alliances?

Allogrooming is a technical term for what’s also known as social grooming, which is common in many species, including primates, horses, cats, mice and even impala. Social grooming is a form of affiliative behaviour – that is, behaviour which promotes social cohesion — and has many functions:

  • Reinforcement of social bonds
  • Establishment of social hierarchies
  • Mediation of tension
  • Conflict resolution

The more I watch people discussing live sport on Twitter, the more I suspect that this is what is going on. Not the conflict resolution so much, because despising supporters of the opposing team is part of the theatrics of it all. But for those who support the same side, the power of sport to lend a sense of identity and belonging has no equal.

Sports tweets might have no real use — seriously, do individual opinions about Messi actually matter? Then again, much of what we do in social media has no real function. We express ourselves because we feel compelled to do it. We vent about the players, the referee, the supporters. Even prominent political figures do it, and when we see them expressing an opinion on the game, we can relate to them. In South Africa, trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi has earned a lot of respect for the football knowledge he shares via Twitter, and that can be translated into social (and political) capital.

This kind of tweeting to reinforce social bonds isn’t restricted to sport, of course. It’s fundamental to social TV, and it’s the force that drives it. In a sense, all tweeting about a shared event is a form of digital allogrooming — whether we’re watching a serious news programme or trashy reality TV.

In fact, many aspects of our behaviour in social media might be explained by studies of animals, especially primates. After writing a first draft of this piece, I came across this Neuromarketing post, which compares likes and retweets to a study of monkeys by Duke University. According to this research, reciprocity could be hardwired into our brains – we literally track who’s been nice to us (and who hasn’t). Dooley notes:

Social media tools like Twitter provide an opportunity for us to interact with others in a relatively simple fashion. We can give or receive useful information (and funny cat videos), offer compliments or criticism directly, etc. We can also grant little favours to others by sharing, liking, +1-ing, their content and ideas.

Is it unrealistic to think that our brains are as good at tracking our social favours as the monkeys are about doling out sips of juice?

Allogrooming is a different kind of activity from altruism, but its effects are similar: stronger social bonds. Sharing makes us feel good.

So it’s not quite true that nobody cares what some random fan sitting on his (or her) couch at home thinks about Suarez. Other fans care, and for a moment or two, they like each other more, and feel more of a connection. Who knows what alliances may form down the line.

That’s the power of tweeting about sport.

Image: spencer77 (via Flickr)

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