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Flinging poop at the Dunbar Number

Cobb's all atwitter over this Christopher Allen fellow, who gave a talk on July 11about social networking software and related topics, particularly the Dunbar number. Cobb interprets this as the cognitive limit to the number of relationships you can maintain. Seems to me I've heard of this before, someplace, and indeed the ever-helpful Wikipedia says they're the same thing.

Color me skeptical. I'm no anthropologist or sociologist, but I don't think the critical factor is something wired into our Monkey Brain Release 3.0. I think it has more to do with the amount of time you have available to maintain relationships, crossbred with whatever passes for social skills and the ability to remember names and faces. Some of this may be biologically determined, but a lot of it is dealt to us by our families and the societies we grow up in. I would go so far as to argue that the famously cliquish and superficially polite nature of Minnesotans derives largely from their small-town origins, which have been duplicated in the larger cities by the much-ballyhooed neighborhoods, which serve a similar social function. Still, I think it's entirely possible for someone to know and care about more than 150 people, if they travel enough often enough and mix with enough other people. I think the opposite is also true, that there are people who can barely remember the names and faces of their immediate family, much less the second cousin once removed they don't see but once every couple of decades or so.

Either way, because you only have so much time to spend wandering around awake, how many and how deep your relationships are is largely a function of how much time you spend with those people. As any priest or marriage counselor will tell you, if you're spending more time playing mah-jongg with your personal computer than talking to your wife, the odds are good that the relationship ain't gonna last. On the other hand, a friend probably won't mind so much and a casual acquaintance still less - so long as you're not doing it when you're hanging out with them instead of having a beer and watching the game. This is also why we tend to look for people who have similar interests to ours - it makes it a lot easier to pursue your hobbies if the wife or GF is also into those things.

Is social networking software going to change that? I really doubt it. It may add more acquaintances to your address book, it may increase your chances of finding That Certain Person with whom you want to defy the divorce statistics. Because, after all, statistics describe average people, and we are so not average, right? ;)

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
edwarddain
Jul. 25th, 2006 10:40 pm (UTC)
Actually I've always like the Dunbar Number. I that "exceptions" fall into two basic categories. Those who are a deviation or two off the mean in their DB, and those people (like the traveller you mention) who have fluid membranes for including and excluding people from thier monkeysphere. In the latter case the more interesting question is how many people in those traveller's monkeyspheres reciprocally hold the traveller as a social intimate?

Similar to this is the discussion around family-of-choice for LGBT individuals rather than family-of-origin. Research (I'm blanking on who) came up with needing 8-12 individuals to generate the needed social support, and that it takes ~1 year of effort to build that size family-of-choice.
wombat_socho
Jul. 25th, 2006 10:54 pm (UTC)
I think the Dunbar Number may be a useful tool for thinking in broad terms about why society is the way it is, but using it for more personal stuff strikes me as a recipe for disaster.

In the latter case the more interesting question is how many people in those traveller's monkeyspheres reciprocally hold the traveller as a social intimate?
Yeah, that's a damn good question. We all know situations where people are close to others who don't hold them in the same regard.


kawaii_shoujo
Jul. 25th, 2006 10:56 pm (UTC)
I think there's no limit to how many people one person can care about. I still cry over 9/11 and none of those people were in my "monkeysphere." On the other hand, I have no tears left for a relationship that meant everything to me that ended in October 2001. He was in my "monkeysphere" and I do still care about him, but cry over him? Not anymore.

Maybe the Dunbar number is just an excuse for our own selfishness and cruelty. . . "Hey, it's not my fault! It's the Dunbar number!"
wombat_socho
Jul. 26th, 2006 02:04 am (UTC)
I think there's no limit to how many people one person can care about.

You're probably right. As I replied to edwarddain, the monkeysphere is a useful tool for thinking about societies in general and why they work the way they do. Applying it to individual people is like using a wrench to hammer nails: sure, it works in a really clumsy way, but it's the wrong tool for the job.
michaellee
Jul. 26th, 2006 01:34 am (UTC)
I think it is one of those things that you can over generalize on really easily. People aren't so digital that when they reach their upper "friend" limit they have to drop one of the old ones.

It's an average, or a median -- and of course, there are very few *truly* average people. But there's still a lot to study about how groups work when you have an increasing part of contact with people online through one forum or another.
wombat_socho
Jul. 26th, 2006 02:06 am (UTC)
It's an average, or a median -- and of course, there are very few *truly* average people. But there's still a lot to study about how groups work when you have an increasing part of contact with people online through one forum or another.

Yes. I'm just not at all certain that the Dunbar number should be used in a lot of the ways that it is. It reminds me a lot of the confusion between IQ and actual talents for doing things...the wrong yardstick applied to the wrong things.
christophera
Sep. 14th, 2006 07:44 pm (UTC)
Dunbar Triage
I do talk about the social limits of time and how they relate to the Dunbar Number in my article Dunbar Triage: Too Many Connections.

However, I do feel that some of the Worlds of Warcraft and Ultima Online group data that post in my later blog articles on the Dunbar Number do show that there does some to some interesting thresholds of group size that are based on some human limitation. It may not be a cognitive limit, it may be just what we socially accept as the minimum amount of time to have a meaninful interaction, but these thresholds do seem to emperically exist.
wombat_socho
Sep. 15th, 2006 12:15 am (UTC)
Re: Dunbar Triage
I'll take a look at that article, as well as the later posts on WoW and UO data. Don't get me wrong, I like the fact that you're looking into these things (at least somebody is doing some sociological work on fandom) but the tendency of some people to just take the notion of the Dunbar Number and run with it as the sole explanation for social group sizes annoys me no end. People just aren't that simple, and neither is society.
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