Friday, February 27, 2009

The Economist, Facebook and the Dunbar number

The Economist has an article this week entitled "Primates on Facebook" which talks about the size of the average network on Facebook (120 "friends") and the connection to the often quoted (mis-quoted perhaps?) Dunbar's number in which British Anthropologist Robert Dunbar claimed that the human brain (more specifically the size of the neocortex) could only keep track of 148 connections in its network.

The question raised by the article is whether mediation of these networks by a computer makes the "cost" to keep each relationship alive lower. I might be dating myself, but in my early teenage years, I still wrote real actual letters to my friends across the world. My group of "friends" therefore was lept fairly small due to the cost of staying in touch.

Email lists allowed me to employ one-way communication and share my life with a much broader group (some were avid readers, others considered it spam). Now with Facebook, I feel that I have two networks: My friends (those that would have been on the one way email blast) who now have a 2 way dialogue thanks to wall updates, pictures, and social apps, and my "other" contacts, people that I would never add to my email but whom I am OK having on the periphery of my social network (they can consume but it is unlikely to be two way).

So, yes the article is correct that "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,'" but I still disagree with the notion of a static number... and believe that social networks, twitter and the like do allow us to have less costly (and thus more frequent) interactions with a greater number of people.

A great book on some of the science behind social networks, made consumable for the common man, is Duncan Watts Six Degrees. Duncan had joined Yahoo! Research...I wonder whether he is still there.

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