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.

Juggling Social Roles in Social Media

Browncoat (from show Firefly) polo
Juggling the dual role of worker bee and geek by wearing a business casual geek shirt

Sociology has a concept of us holding multiple social roles. At home, I am both a husband and a father. With relatives, I am a son, nephew, or cousin. At work, I am a supervisee, mentor, subject matter expert, or organization historian. Things get a bit more undefined out in the wider world, but I hold social roles out there too.

Each of these social roles vary in the expectations of behavior. So, our behavior may vary depending on which role we are occupying at a given time. And, even more interesting is when we have to juggle multiple social roles AT THE SAME TIME for the first time. The more experience we attain at doing something, the better we get at figuring out the constraints and minefields in a situation.

The human brain devotes a large amount of processing to managing the information about the behavior of others to determine trust. And also ensuring our own behaviors are trustworthy. (You’ve read my prior stuff on Dunbar, right? 1, 2)

Perhaps part of the stress inducing nature of social media is the mixing of these social roles? A giant social network like Facebook means having a variety of relatives, coworkers, and friends mixing in the same spaces. People who come from different backgrounds, political viewpoints, education levels, interests, and levels of restraint. Navigating all this probably generates a ton of stress.

If so, then we need more segmentation.

  1. Limit coworkers to more work appropriate social networks like LinkedIn.
  2. Join topic groups and post content related to it there. To talk about politics, join groups that discuss it. (Be careful to avoid echo chamber groups.)
  3. A private place to discuss more openly with friends. Maybe a private twitter account, a private Facebook group, group chat, etc.
  4. A private place to discuss more openly with family.

Dunbar on Facebook

You’ve read my previous posts on Dunbar‘s Number, right?

Go on…. I’ll wait.

Remember the one on Scoble and Facebook? Good. For a while, I fastidiously ensured my number of friends stayed below 150 because I took the idea of Dunbar’s number as a life strategy. Then I let it slip to 200 which I pared back down to 150. My laziness let it hit 500.

It appears Robin Dunbar is now studying Facebook users to see ‘if the “Facebook effect” has stretched the size of social groupings.’ He says despite the large number of friends people only interact with about 150 of them. Maybe like most of psychology, the subjects are college students who supposedly are almost all on Facebook. In the real world, most of the people with which I have regular interaction, exactly those Dunbar’s number covers, are not my Facebook friends.

My Facebook friends instead are my information buffet. Social networks are how we keep in touch with what is happening in the world. My information technology friends provide me what is happening in my career field. My photography friends provide me with useful tips for a big hobby. Also, the bigger our social network, the more opportunities for help from or being consequential strangers. Social networks are a strategy not a replication of the brain.

The term “friends” used by Facebook, I think, is a brilliant marketing ploy. People would much rather show up as my friend than my contact.
🙂

Cognitive Load

My parents taught me as a child lying is harder than telling the truth. I am way too lazy to bother with anything other than using a tangent to change the subject. Simplicity also helps keep track of my life. I like understanding what is happening and why.

Skills involved in deception also teach problem-solving, project management, and social context management. My favorite friends were the brilliant liars. They always had a new entertaining story.

For a host of reasons, their theory goes, lying is more mentally taxing than telling the truth. Performing an extra task while lying or telling the truth should therefore affect the liars more. The Load of Lying: Testing for Truth

As evidenced by Dunbar’s Number, our brains are wired for both determining honesty in others and being the cheat.

Why One Should Not Connect With Egoists on Social Networks

“Second, if you add me as a friend I assume you want me to send you emails and interact with you.” — Plaxo: the social monster? – Scobleizer

Robert is the geek equivalent of Paris Hilton or Brittany Spears or Lindsey Lohan: A sad trainwreck we all thank a higher being that its not us. People don’t care what he has to say or endorse. They just want appear “cool” to their other geek friends. Because he does not know us, we don’t expect him to actually contact us.

The further a number of connections rises above 150 (Dunbar’s number), the more people listed who are not really a friend. At 5,000, he would require unheard of levels of emotional intelligence (I just don’t see it) to know them all well. Therefore, its clear the connections from Scoble’s perspective is to market to them (aka spam).