The social environment modulates gene expression, physiology, behaviour and patterns of inheritance. For more than 50 years, this concept has been investigated using approaches that include partitioning the social component out of behavioural heritability estimates, studying maternal effects on offspring, and analysing dominance hierarchies. Recent advances have formalized this ‘social environment effect’ by providing a more nuanced approach to the study of social influences on behaviour while recognizing evolutionary implications. Yet, in most of these formulations, the dynamics of social interactions are not accounted for. Also, the reciprocity between individual behaviour and group-level interactions has been largely ignored. Consistent with evolutionary theory, the principles of social interaction are conserved across a broad range of taxa. While noting parallels in diverse organisms, this review uses Drosophila melanogaster as a case study to revisit what is known about social interaction paradigms. We highlight the benefits of integrating the history and pattern of interactions among individuals for dissecting molecular mechanisms that underlie social modulation of behaviour.