Dunbar revisited 147.8++

I’ve written previously about the Dunbar number, a number which is apparently hardwired into our brains and creates an upper limit to the amount of people we can comfortably interact with in our lives. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and the way we obviously structure relationships in our brain. We have so many aides now to help us store more information about a person and I suppose we don’t need to include that in whatever profile we have for those 150 people in our noggin. I’m wondering if we can increase the 147.8 towards 250 or 350 or 450 and still manage to have good relationships with them? I wonder are we doing this already anyway?

150 we can manage BUT only in communities where we all want to be that connected and are willing to work for it. Apparently Dunbar saw that groups of a large size like 150 spent 42% of their time social grooming in order to keep that group size alive but language brought that number down so there was not as much effort. Please Jesus tell me that poking and quiz spamming on Facebook is not social grooming. 🙂 Nice though that communications and sharing (in a sense) can help lessen the effort to maintain cohesion.

We don’t remember phone numbers anymore do we? Phones do that. Emails? Well email address structures are almost a standard now and the GMail contacts list helps us there too. Facebook and other social networks help too with all the fluffy details about a person: Birthday, education, stripper name etc. The world is becoming so connected too that our number of friends is probably increasing over generations so I wonder is part of our brain physically evolving too so that the number goes up? If language brought that 42% down a bit, what about social networks and technology? We can interact more efficiently now and store details of the interactions, leaving more space in that brain of ours.

Shel Israel in a recent post also was thinking about pushing this number up:

When I wrote the book outline, I estimated that the largest of these global neighborhoods would be no bigger than 150, a number I derived directly from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point–a book you should still all read. But, technology has allowed that number to get larger. Perhaps 500 “friends can actually communicate with each other. But most neighborhoods are much smaller perhaps less than 15 members.

I tried my little experiment a little while back with Facebook where I messaged everyone I was connected with and tried to have proper conversations and tailored each message to the person and what I already knew about them. It wasn’t easy at all and by the end I was just sending almost generic messages to people but they were still ok I suppose though a lot shorter than the first that I sent. I learned a little about each person too. Funnily enough though I wonder do we have to seek out news from people now with all these activity walls and blogs. I have been in this conversation (of a sort):

“Any news? ” Yeah I was in Dublin today, bought some new shoes ” “Ah yeah, read that on your twitter or was it your Facebook or I dunno, one of your outlets” “Ah yeah, Facebook, how was the play, saw your review on the blog”…

So it does look like we are pushing that number up. I’d love though to see some kind of interaction chart for all of our online lives and personas. If Tumble blogs ran stats AND also logged the way we interact with our friends, it’d be great. GMail has frequently contacts listed, iTunes and our iPod and LastFM measure what we play most, it would be good to measure all forms of communication with people and chart it. We could see then are we seriously pushing that 150 limit. So why doesn’t someone create a Dunbar app for my phone, my email, my blog, my Facebook and my feedreader? Google would buy you easily.

4 Responses to “Dunbar revisited 147.8++”

  1. mikeC says:

    I’ve never head of the Dunbar number before, but funny as it may seem, social structures break down in herds of cows as the numbers get to 200. There is no set hierarchy, presumably because they are just not able to remember all the others in the field with them. It leads to an increase in confrontations between each other, and them being generally less relaxed.
    I wonder how they are able to cope with more than us. What they have going for them I suppose is that they all speak the same language, and they only have a few rudimentary forms of communication, and ‘grooming’, and that all in the herd are relative close and they see each other every day, unlike us who may not see each other for weeks on end.

  2. Ina says:

    Have a look at Ego networks Damien.
    You going to Blogtalk so?

  3. joconnor says:

    Great introduction to a social theory new to me.

    The Dunbar number refers to ‘maintained social relationships’. Do Social network facilities, such as facebook status updates, allow us to build ‘maintained social relationships’?
    Or do they create a new type of social relationship (SR), a dormant SR – enough to maintain the SR, but not enough to consider them fully developed. These Dormant SR’s being easily switchable into maintained SR where mutual interests are ignited/reignited.
    I think this is where these social utilities come into their own. In particular as an easy way to keep in touch with good people I was sociable with when I lived with abroad, who I would like to maintain contact with in an uncomplicated manner. So that if circumstances changed (jobs, moved house) we could rebuild that contact into a fully fledged SR.

  4. Olivier says:

    Hey Damien,
    I’m catching up on my feeds hence the late comment (bah only 14 days!). Very interesting post. This reminded me of a sweet little app I used a couple of days back: TwitterStats, available @ http://dcortesi.com/2007/12/27/twitter-stats/
    Here are my stats: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oansaldi/2184299578/
    Looking at them, it’s obvious I should sleep more 😉