Dunbar’s Number

I’m rereading Robin Dunbar’s How Many Friends Does One Person Need.  Were I a philanthropist, I would buy a copy for every person in America—especially every teenager.  Were I a benevolent dictator, I would demand its reading.  The number in the title is 150—the limit on the number of social relationships that humans can have, a figure that is now graced by the name “Dunbar’s Number.”  It’s based on the relationship between the size of the neocortex and group size, first seen in nonhuman primates and then shown to be valid for humans, from pre-history to today—Facebook not withstanding.  Dunbar’s book is an unflinching look at the effects of evolutionary natural selection, of how we can’t fool Mother Nature.  When we try, the results are disastrously consequential.

I’m not at all sure I could extend the list of my friendships even to 150.  Most of us have no more than three or four friends who know everything about us, and us them. Friends for whom we would go out of our way to help, to lend money, to share the most intimate confidences.  Then there’s another ring of friendships—maybe around 10 to 20 people—who are one step removed from the first ring of friends.  And so on, until we get to acquaintances, friends of friends.  From prehistoric tribes to successful business practices today, Dunbar pegs the optimal number at 150.

There’s something else going on, however, with having more than 550 Friends on Facebook, as I do.  I know a man with more than 4,000.  What’s this about?  Has social media changed our world, or is Friends simply the wrong word?  Wouldn’t Links be better?  Social theorists call these ecosystems of influence and this is a construct I understand and believe.  Yet for the most part these are not my friends.  Oh, maybe a few are and I know these are within my 150 because they are the Friends who read and comment on my postings, and whose postings I also read and comment on.  There’s an exchange that might also occur in real life if I were to see them. I care about these Friends.

I’m thinking of paring my Friends on Facebook down to 150.  [I sincerely hope the other 400 take no offense.] I’m really not too interested in sharing my experience, or attempting to influence, people outside of my inner rings.  It’s rather like the 20-year-old waiter who spontaneously tells me his favorite items on the menu.  Why in the world would I care, or even believe his dubious judgment is in any way equal, or superior, to mine?  It’s not as though Andre Soltner shared his preferences with me.

Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur and notorious foe of the social web, writes about how everyone is an expert online.  A blogger with no expertise may be read with the same legitimacy as a true expert in the field.  Everyone’s a musician, a photographer, a diarist, a celebrity.  Keen fears a future “where ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”  That pretty much sums it up!  We have gone far beyond Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame.”

Lady Gaga has more fans on Twitter than anyone else: as of today, 19,923,324 and growing.  One might say this is a colossal exercise in the irrelevant.  But as reported in a recent article in The New York Times, Lady Gaga is extending her considerable influence to promote a social cause to reduce bullying and increase fairness in schools.  It’s her Born This Way Foundation, launched at Harvard last week, with the mission of creating a kinder and braver world. Who wouldn’t like that (the Republican primary candidates notwithstanding)?  It just might work.  But it isn’t about Friends.

I wonder, though, about the growth of Facebook, and its competitors abroad.  Is there a point at which all these Friends don’t really matter?  Does the platform become simply a framework for advertising and self-promotion rather than an exchange between friends?  Many people pointlessly compete to see who has the most number of Friends.  I had a friend who even counts the number of birthday greetings posted to her Facebook wall as an indication of her popularity and perhaps even self-worth.  How much more significant would it be to get a call on one’s birthday, or a letter, or even a direct email greeting?  Especially since our awareness of the birthday is prompted by Facebook itself!

So if our influence—and I’m talking about ordinary people like me, not celebrities like Lady Gaga—is reasonably limited to our circles of friends, how do ecosystems function and spread?  I think they begin as small conversations, and extend, initially, from one person to another.  That’s where sharing becomes relevant because it gives an idea the opportunity to extend beyond one’s own circle into another’s.  And another.  And another.  It’s exactly as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.  There comes a time when the influence of an individual tips to the group, then tips outside the group to a population never even conceived by the original influencer.  Remember Gladwell’s story about the re-emergence of Hush Puppy shoes?  What started out as counter-culture statement by a few hipsters in the East Village spread to larger and larger circles of people until the nearly defunct company became a nationally accepted brand once again.  (At which point hipsters everywhere stopped wearing them.)

Sometimes one person’s influence can be tragic.  It’s one of the reasons I actually tear up reading Robin Dunbar’s book.  Like Dunbar, I believe in science to explain why we humans behave in the ways we do.  New knowledge gained from advances in neuroscience and genetics have added immeasurably to our understanding of evolution and natural selection, of who we are.  This knowledge does not make us super-human, but more human.  As Newton observed, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Yet, when we have someone on the national stage who is intent on inflicting a personal belief system on the American government and people—a belief system that is anti-science, anti-education, anti-women, anti-health care, anti-fairness, even anti-Constitutional—then I despair for our collective future as a civilized nation.  That this person commands support and popularity, all in the name of “values,” is a malaise I fail to comprehend.  We become little different from the theocracies of the Middle East.

It’s my hope that all of us who oppose such bigotry and prejudice will use their own circle of influence to create a wave of sanity that builds to an ocean of hope.  It’s not about opposing the individual about whom I’m writing.  He’s entitled to his beliefs.  [Although in an election year it does come down to opposing an individual.]

It’s about opposing a culture of limits, as opposed to a culture of possibility; a culture defined by exclusion, as opposed to inclusion; a culture of narrowness, as opposed to a culture of expansiveness.

Start with our friends, our community of 150 friends.  It’s my moral obligation to my children and my children’s children.  It’s a moral obligation to myself.



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  1. Hi Niland,
    I can lighten your burden of sending everyone Dunbar’s book – already got one with corners bent on almost every page. His term “broadcast circle” is more appropriate to what we have going on in our social networks. I am so convinced of his 150, that my new niche network site for independents and (very) small business called indie.bz (that I am launching shortly), limits the number of people you can have in your network to 150. No GaGa’s allowed. Great post. Thanks.

  2. Thank you Elaine for finding me and the post. It’s a wonderful book, so filled with insight and humanity. indie.bz sounds terrific. I hope you’ll let me know when it’s launched.

    • Dear Niland,
      I found you the “new” old fashioned way – google alerts for “dunbar’s number.” But in all things serendipitous, I found so much more. I read your older posts – written with charm, humor, a deep understanding of story telling and the written word, an intelligence that comes from age and experience with an opinion worth reading (very hard to find these days, I’m afraid). In “In Defense of Well Rounded” I was delighted that you took on Seth Godin – it’s funny how people defend with broad categorizations, that which they are themselves.
      The book store link – what an amazing treat! I am a sculptor, and of course, all I saw was pure art in those images – I am going to put visiting at least four of them in my “bucket list” before the cataracts set in. (If you’re curious, you can see some of my work: elainejoli.com)
      I really am so pleased to have discovered your blog, and I look forward to your next post.


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