Friday, June 26, 2009

Will Dunbar’s Number Crush Our Social Media Homies?

Disclosure: I can't get enough of Dunbar's Number. What in heaven's name is really happening here at this intersection of mathematics, anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, Grey's Anatomy and Twitter?

Some research aristocrats warn us not to rely on Wikipedia, but what the heck? I think the pedia’s definition of Dunbar’s Number is as good as any, to wit: Dunbar's number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships." Already, I'm worried about this "stable" thing, but let's move on.

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of London, tagged this number of manageable, stable, social relationships at 150. But there also was a caveat. In order to maintain our cohesive community of 150, Dunbar said the group would need to budget 42% of its time for “social grooming.” That’s a lot of flea pickin'. Lucky for us humans, we've got language, the yakety-yak of which can substitute for hands-on primate grooming.

Even luckier for Tweeters, language is our stock in trade. Since we speak in efficient 140-character spurts, we can “tweet groom” a lot of people. On the other hand, we need to read a lot in order that we might engage in the more exalted “REtweet groom” or even the "direct" groom. (Okay, maybe 42% of our day isn't so far off the mark after all).

So, Tweeple, how’s it working’ for ya? As far as I can tell, it depends on whom we ask.

Christopher Allen gets into the statistical dimension of Dunbar more deeply, but still seems to come down to Dunbar’s maximum of 150 participants, even for online communities. Allen also notes that even beyond a measly (my word) 80 people the “noise level created by required socialization becomes an issue.” If you've ever watched Jerry Springer, you know what Allen means.

Andrew Mager, on the other hand, is pretty sure the social web allows a much greater number of friendsters. People's brains are evolving to accommodate more massive input, he theorizes. (Note: Theories like these are why I belong to the neuroscience Twibe, in hopes of keeping up with brain research).

Meanwhile Chris Brogan takes a practical approach, suggesting that, if we can only deal with 150 people, a good strategy is to count within our 150 few, people who are themselves tied into other influential groups of 150. A sort of "chain groom," if you will.

Business journalist Andrew Wee, however, is already hurting from social media. He calls “getting on Facebook quite a painful experience.” Wee decries being hit by irrelevant application invites and multiple people sending the same invites to the same app over and over again, “which means you could be spending 15-30 minutes each day just getting rid of application requests.” I know, I know, Mr. Wee. But, if you think Facebook is bad, take a look at the even more chaotic GoogleWave. (On second thought, don't. My neuro-psychiatrist says this many messages within messages within messages could lead to synapse collapse.)

Wayne Porter, co-founder at Meme Science, says that “marketers lose by not working with mirco-sized players who really can influence people.” I wasn't sure how small my player should be -- is 4'2" about right? -- but he clarifies: “The real value from social networking platforms are the relationships forged and conversations to be had. Facebook applications or RPGs are great for this, but one should keep Dunbar’s number in mind. This is especially prudent in high immersion environments, like Second Life, where nothing seems to scale.” (Did he say second life? Did he? Did he really say that?)

I know I shouldn't, but I must ask the following final question, because really, architecture should be part of this serious conversation, too! So -- if mapped out geographically -- would the pattern of my own – and your -- Dunbar’s Numbers be shaped like a spiral? Just wondering ...

- scrubbed by Marketing Brillo

No comments: