The Economist wrote about The Dunbar Number and then a chat with Facebook’s in house sociologist, Cameron Marlow.
Dunbar’s number is the number of people we can keep track of in our head. Or, I prefer, our heart. Not everyone fits there. So when I look at someone walking towards me, I think “Oh gosh, I know them, isn’t that… “. And I figure out the social associations – where I last saw them, who are the mutual friends, fight/flight/hug, whateves. For the people outside of our Dunbar number – the one’s we know less well – it takes a few seconds to compute. Faces, names don’t come so readily. Well, not at my advanced age anyway. But when I look at someone within my Dunbar circle, say, my sister, I know immediately who she is, what she likes, our connections, the fact that she lost my first teddy bear, and her first gollywog at a park, that she always says she hates things that I like, that together we fight like cat and dog but unite us against a third person and whoaaaah! Y’know, normal stuff.
What also struck Dr Marlow, however, was that the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom he (or she) frequently interacts is remarkably small and stable. The more “active” or intimate the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group.
Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.
What mainly goes up, therefore, is not the core network but the number of casual contacts that people track more passively. This corroborates Dr Marsden’s ideas about core networks, since even those Facebook users with the most friends communicate only with a relatively small number of them.
Put differently, people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a polling organisation. Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever.
Once again, “social networks” does not mean “friends networks” or “party networks” it means “society networks”. We connect to people we are interested in observing, reading about, being linked to, finding out stuff, not necessarily chatting with. If social networks really are the next generation of society news, then we as interested in reading their Facebook stuff as we are reading about them in a newspaper.
If the boss has trouble relating to social media or online communities – people wasting time online – try calling them customer networks. After all, chances are that your friends/followers will be more interested in links you send out or conversations they observe you having online than always jumping in themselves.