If you are not familiar with Dunbar’s Number, let me explain it before we get going here.
Dunbar’s Number, also referred to as the Cortex Ratio, is the brainchild concept coined by Robin Dunbar in 1992. Dunbar is currently the professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. He claims that human’s brains are only capable of managing a network of 150 people.
This does not mean people you know (obviously most of us come in contact/meet way more than 150 people throughout a lifetime) but the people you maintain genuine relationships with on a regular basis.
By studying the social formation and group cohesion of primates, Dunbar determined that the neocortex, the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language, could only manage a social circle of 148.7, or in whole person numbers, 150 friends.
Enter: Social Media
More recently, Dunbar’s Number has come under criticism from some who believe that social media and networking online makes Dunbar’s Number irrelevant.
Multiple works, including Collaboration by Morten Hansen, discuss the fact that weak relationships are not only important but necessary, because those weak relationships are what enable us to extend our current circles, and because we can keep more than 150 ‘weak’ ties very easily.
“Strong ties…tend to be worlds we already know; a good friend often knows many of the same people and things we know…Weak ties are also good because they take less time. It’s less time consuming to talk to someone once a month (weak ties) than twice per week (strong ties). People can keep up quite a few weak ties without them being a burden.”
To a certain extent, I agree here – social media does allow us to maintain a huge number of weak ties, like how Facebook announces birthdays and anniversaries, and you can follow what your friends are doing by looking at their Twitter or Facebook posts, without actually having to speak to them.
Honestly, for some ‘weak-tie’ friends, the only way I contact them is through social media – I don’t even have a few people’s phone numbers. How is that for weak?!
Other social media gurus also challenge the relevancy of Dunbar’s Number in today’s social media world.
Check out rebuttals from Jacob Morgan of Social Media Today here. Also, Chris Brogan’s “Beating Dunbar’s Number” article, seen here, discusses how not to deal with Dunbar’s Number, but how to organize your contacts to keep ‘strong’ ties with way more than 150, which Chris has to do in his profession. In addition to these, there are countless other articles that dispute Dunbar’s Number.
Questions, Comments, and Your Opinion, Please!
Obviously there are so many questions left unanswered here. Dunbar himself has expanded his investigations to include the phenomenon of social media and its effect on his earlier theories.
A few questions I have included:
-Do social networks only allow us to build weak ties with other people? Or do they allow you to have such a deep understanding of that individual that we don’t need to ‘check in’ with them more than once a month (Morten’s definition of how often we check in with a ‘weak’ tie friend).
-What does gender have to do with maintaining relationships? Are women better at this than men? Why?
-Since people tend to exaggerate about themselves on the internet, can you ever move from a ‘weak’ to a strong tie with someone only using social media? Or do you have to actually meet that person to increase your bond with them?
The questions are endless, so I found a couple videos that should help us to try to figure this all out. First, for a brief (5 minutes, really) introduction on the concept of Dunbar’s Number, delivered by Professor Dunbar, click the Play button below.
After you watch the video, tell us what you think!
For More Information:
If you’re looking for a longer explanation on the concept of Dunbar’s Number, click here. This 23 minute long video is excellent as Professor Dunbar explains his theory in relation to social media. Check that out, here.
And lastly, in case you’re interested at the background of the Dunbar Number, you can check out Dunbar’s past research, with many live links to articles, on his faculty page at Oxford University – Click here.
Clay Shirky is a firm believer in changing how society works by using new technologies to enable global cooperation. In other words, he believes social media can and will change the world.
This TED talk is from June 2009, but it is perhaps more relevant today than when it was originally posted.
Please excuse any errors as I wrote this in a rush and was distracted by social media…
In a fun article published in the magazine Fast Company, journalist Adam Penenberg submitted to being a human guinea pig for neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s social networking experiment.
And the result was more than interesting.
Adam had his blood levels tested for Oxytocin (not Oxycontin, the addicting painkiller) which is called the “love” hormone because it stimulates empathy, generosity and trust.
He also tested his stress hormones cortisol and ACTH tested.
Then Adam spent some time tweeting...
Ten minutes later Zak had his blood tested again. And the result was that Adam’s level of Oxytocin increased by 13.2%. As Adam writes, “that’s equivalent to the hormonal spike experienced by the groom at the wedding Zak attended.”
Even more interesting to me is that the stress hormones cortisol and ACTH went down 10.8% and 14.9%, respectively. That is pretty significant.
Too much trust…
I am not going to get into the mechanisms of why this is happening. (Dr. Zak explains more in the article that I link to below.)
But what I do want to talk about is this trust thing. If social networking increases a hormone that makes us trust too much, then we might be as vulnerable online as we are at the back of the room at a Tony Robbins’ seminar.
For example, a recent study by the Ponemon Institute revealed that almost 90% of social media users believe that social media sites pose no risk even though 60% weren’t sure the social media could even protect their identities!
And 44% would use these sites even if they were sure the site could NOT protect their identities!
Here are some more fun findings:
*Approximately 65 percent of users do not set high privacy or security settings in their social media sites.
*Approximately 40 percent of all respondents share their physical home address through social media applications.
Sounds like a little too much trust to me! Could it be that the hormonal effects just make us immune to critical thinking?
Stress and connection
On the flip side, if connecting with people through social media reduces our stress levels, then it could be very good for our health as stress is the silent killer.
It is kind of ironic. Technology seems to be the source of a lot of isolation. And then social media comes to the rescue and provides a whole new way to connect.
This new remote way of connecting seems to do the trick if Dr. Zak’s results can be replicated on a larger scale.
Save the children
On a related note, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield believes that social media is literally changing the brains of young users. She believes that they: shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification, and make young people more self-centered.
More from Dr. Greenfield:
My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.
Funny, that kind of sounds like me.
So where is this all going?
Based on the latest developments in neuro-technology, Emotiv has developed a revolutionary new personal interface for human computer interaction. The Emotiv EPOC is a high resolution, neuro-signal acquisition and processing wireless neuroheadset. It uses a set of sensors to tune into electric signals produced by the brain to detect player thoughts, feelings and expressions and connects wirelessly to most PCs