The Logical Philosopher

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Is the Dunbar Theory applicable in a Web 2.0 Society?

The Long tail of Social Networking and the Dunbar Theory, with the Logical Philosopher and Gaping Void So what is the true purpose of social networking? Apart from keeping the labor lawyers busy with defending slanderous and malicious wall-to-wall writings, it also serves as a portal to reconnect with old friends, and meet new ones. Or does it? It actually changes our neocortical processing capacity, seen in our ability to connect with a finite amount of people at within the neocortex level in our brain – something that has been limited since the Neolithic age.

That poses an interesting social question: Can Web 2.0 undo 6000 years of evolved social limits?

It worries me that several of my last posts have been about Facebook. Yes, a time waster for all of us, but for me it provides a mark of how much more I am online, as compared to out people watching downtown for great blogging stories.

I find it funny that people on my list that I work with don't acknowledge the existence of it while at work. It's like "What happens in facebook, stays in facebook." I am sure that will all go to hell when something really good gets posted on facebook.

On the topic of reconnecting with old friends, someone said it best to me when they said "I haven't heard from these people for 10 years - why seek me out now, other than to boost their friends count?" As such, I was discussing the philosophy of facebook with Sandritia last weekend, and we came to an interesting point in our analysis.

Social Networking really provides three types of friendships:

1) A pure virtual friendship - no maintenance required, apart from the occasional poke. It is available 24/7 and can reach all corners of the networked globe, connecting individuals with the same obscure interests. Like any digital community it gives an arms-length form of a relationship, allowing us to morph in and out of a digital character, whether it be a true mirror of ourselves, or a made up avatar.

2) A reconnection of friendships – old acquaintances that you just lost touch with, but if you knew where they were, or what they were doing you would be sure to drop in and visit when you were in their part of town. But like any double edged sword this also includes acquaintances that you were glad to lose touch with.

3) New analog friendships, but with the social networking add-on. Instead of meeting somebody once at a social gathering, you now have the ability to keep tabs on what they are doing until you meet at another, real world, social gathering. Effectively accelerating the “getting to know you” from three or four meetings over a few weeks (or months) to twenty or so digital updates within a few days.

In reality we can only genuinely keep up with so many friends. Speaking from a sociologist’s point of view, there is an actual theoretical numerical limit to which we can reach where we begin to lose track of the social relationships with each person, and how they relate to everyone else we know. Highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, this theory is seen as one of the central pillars of the Power of Context: The Dunbar Principle.

Dunbar’s research was measuring the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.” The research looked at a variety of settlements over centuries of social data: Hutterite settlements, army sizes in both current state and as far back as Roman times, and even settlements reaching back to Neolithic farming villages. His conclusion was a human group size of no more than 150 people.

Facebook and Myspace: Social Networking and the Dunbar Theory with the Logical Philosopher Ten years ago I would have suggested that most of us would be hard pressed to name 150 close social friends. In reality work colleagues, relatives and family took up a good portion, with the remainder being our social friends. But now? I’m not so confident of my suggestion. In the past year there has been a boom of social networking sites: 43 Things, Facebook, Myspace, Linked-in, Bebo, Friendster, Hi5, Livespace, etc… Not only do these sites allow us to keep track of our current friends and acquaintances, but more importantly they allow us to retain a connection to those we would have lost touch with when we moved on from a job, a school or a city.

Now, although I’m going to mention the word “statistical distribution”, trust me, this is where it gets interesting.

Long tail economics refers to the statistical distribution of high-amplitude populations followed by a tail of low-amplitude populations. It provides interesting model to look at social networking through – we now have a long tail of friends. They are no longer gone, but only a few Google clicks away of being found.

Mixing in the long tail economics with social networking it begs the question: Can Web 2.0 change the social dynamics of our social contacts enough to significantly change the way Dunbar’s Theory can be approached?

Yes – and it is already happening. It is like we all just got an expansion card for our neocortex, complements of the computer. And if you lose your card, Google will be there to archive it for you. Like it or not, I think we all just took one large step towards living in the Matrix.

If you are a Sociologist and want to explore this more, give me an email. I think we have the makings of a good research article here.