Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You've got to have (150) friends...

The post title is the title of a brief essay by Robin Dunbar, who is best known for his work documenting, for a large number of animal species,  the relationship between brain size and social group size (they get larger together.)   His curve predicts that the optimal group size for humans is about 150.  That is what is observed over a large number of hunter-gatherer and aboriginal human species across the world,  and (his article contends) is an evolved biological/psychological limit that operates even in a world of facebook that permits thousands of "friends." Some clips:
The developers at Facebook overlooked one of the crucial components in the complicated business of how we create relationships: our minds...Put simply, our minds are not designed to allow us to have more than a very limited number of people in our social world. The emotional and psychological investments that a close relationship requires are considerable, and the emotional capital we have available is limited...Indeed, no matter what Facebook allows us to do, I have found that most of us can maintain only around 150 meaningful relationships, online and off — what has become known as Dunbar’s number. Yes, you can “friend” 500, 1,000, even 5,000 people with your Facebook page, but all save the core 150 are mere voyeurs looking into your daily life — a fact incorporated into the new social networking site Path, which limits the number of friends you can have to 50.

Until relatively recently, almost everyone on earth lived in small, rural, densely interconnected communities, where our 150 friends all knew one another...the social and economic mobility of the past century has worn away at that interconnectedness. As we move around the country and across continents, we collect disparate pockets of friends, so that our list of 150 consists of a half-dozen subsets of people who barely know of one another’s existence...as we move around, though, we can lose touch with even our closest friends. Emotional closeness declines by around 15 percent a year in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that in five years someone can go from being an intimate acquaintance to the most distant outer layer of your 150 friends.

Facebook and other social networking sites allow us to keep up with friendships that would otherwise rapidly wither away. And they do something else that’s probably more important, if much less obvious: they allow us to reintegrate our networks so that, rather than having several disconnected subsets of friends, we can rebuild, albeit virtually, the kind of old rural communities where everyone knew everyone else. Welcome to the electronic village.

1 comment:

  1. Not sure where they got the information, but I believe 150 was the ideal group-size that Jim Collins found for functional corporate workgroups in his book "Good to Great"