A Dunbar model in social media

This made me wonder about the possibilities of a better model.

Fifteen years into the Facebook era, it’s well established that people aren’t actually friends with the hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends they may have. They couldn’t be if they tried—research has found that there seems to be a limit to the number of social connections a human brain can manage. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford, is the most famous proponent of this theory, and his estimate of 150—known as “Dunbar’s number”—is often cited as the (approximate) number of casual friends a person can keep track of. There are different Dunbar numbers for different levels of closeness—concentric circles, if you will. The smallest circle, of five friends, consists of someone’s most intimate friendships. One can keep track of 15 close friends, and 50 pretty close friends. Expanding out from the 150 casual friends, this research suggests that the brain can handle 500 acquaintances, and 1,500 is the absolute limit—“the number of faces we can put names to,” Dunbar writes.

I’ve mentally categorized them as:

  1. Must Friends (support clique) : 5 people : a best friend, a member of your inner circle, a person you count on when something big happens in your life
  2. Trust Friends (sympathy group) : 15 people : a friend who shows integrity, someone you feel comfortable with, that you’re always glad to see, but not in your inmost circle; perhaps someone you’d like to be closer to if you had the time or opportunity
  3. Rust Friends (close friends) : 50 people : a person you’ve known for a long, long time; you’re probably not going to get any closer to that person unless something changes, but a part of your life
  4. Just Friends (casual friends) : 150 people : a person you see — at a weekly poker game, at your child’s school — who is enjoyable company, but you have no desire to socialize outside a specific context or to get to know that person better
  5. Acquaintances : 500 people
  6. Facial Recognition : another 780 (bringing total up to 1,500)

The Facebook algorithm is already looking for how much we engage with individuals in order to decide which content to show us on the Newsfeed. By deciding which people are important to us, they are in effect, modeling the Dunbar theory for us. Just in the shadows without allowing us to veto or decide on it. Well, sort of, we have the options for “Close Friends” and “Acquaintances” which seem to be taken from Dunbar albeitly at the wrong levels.

It seems plausible that Facebook could formalize the model further by just adding three more levels. They could automatically mark people based on their interpretation of our behavior with the person. And then also allow us to override it by changing the mark. That could help Facebook understand our idealized state of the relationship to better improve the Newsfeed. People leave the service because of frustrations about what they see. For some, that is too much about acquaintances and not enough about close friends. (The algorithms are showing unwanted content based on misunderstanding the individual, who doesn’t understand how to like the correct things to optimize the Newsfeed.)

Then again, I am probably one of the few Homo Roboticus using social media who would appreciate this. Most people probably would find it overwhelming.

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