dunbar’s number, facebook and the churchChris Ridgeway | 26 Jan 2010 | 11:02
There’s some growing buzz in the last two days about Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research into social groups. Dunbar is currently a fellow at the same college C.S. Lewis inhabited (Magdalen), and is noted for saying that human beings cannot having a meaningful circle of friends greater than 150 people.
The limit is called “dunbar’s number,” and its origin is pretty biological: Dunbar measured brain size (actually: the relative size of the neocortex to the medula) of both primates and humans. Because the neocortex is related to information processing about our relational networks, the size and the number of people we can know may be related. This is the social brain hypothesis. (read the original 1998 research)
Don’t check out yet. This is where it’s fun. Dunbar went on to check to see if his number played out in real life, mostly looking at old stuff—hunter-gather communites, etc. But recently he’s been looking for more current examples, which includes Facebook. His study isn’t out yet, but the Times reports his initial findings.
“The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world,” said Dunbar.
“People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they’re unlikely to be bigger than anyone else’s.”
Interesting stuff. But there are some big caveats. The number 150 just isn’t that solid. Women and men differ, for one things (women can maintain more active relationships). And according to his original research, the number only expands to this size when a group has an self-identity (e.g. “we’re a tribe!”) and is stressed in certain ways (e.g. “can you believe that typhoon we made it through??”). Otherwise it’s even smaller. Are these identifiable circles modeled on Facebook? (my answer: no, not yet. They can be privately: you can set up friend groups that only you can see. But in a group sense, only fan pages and mutual-interest groups are close, and that’s not much).
Even more, Dunbar’s original study showed that complex hierarchy in social structures complicate things (maybe reduce the number). Confusing. Is Facebook a flat structure or hierarchical structure? (my guess: despite appearances, it’s not truly flat. The question is in serious tension. the hierarchy is based on a simple structure of social capital (i.e. number of friends and quality of content), but interacts significantly with real world social capital, and conflicts with structured hierarchy – your boss might less pull on Facebook than you do).
So can we only have even less? 100 real friends? Despite my poking at the actual number (which other researches place lower or higher as well: 125, 230, etc), there’s something to the wider concept. We intuitively know that we only have stronger ties with close group of friends . Those people with 1,200 friends on Facebook who “say yes to everybody” that Friends them—they’ve got fans, but not 1200 friendships. Me? My rule is that I have to be able to introduce you to someone else in a social situation. That means I regularly ignore friend requests (probably have rejected hundreds, not because I didn’t like the person I met at the party, but because in a week I’m positive I won’t remember their name and it won’t matter that much). I guess I’m committed to this modeling social reality stuff.
Church question. But let’s accept the 150 number again. What particularly strikes me is that people like Dave Fitch and many others are pretty confident that the size of a relational-missional church cannot grow beyond this size without losing their key characteristics. I tend to agree: I believe if you cannot know whether the person sitting behind you in worship is “new” or not, you’ve lost hospitality—an essential core value.
Maybe we’ve been noticing Dunbar’s number.
Other links or notes:
- Dunbar has an upcoming book
- Jacob Morgan writes that Dunbar’s number is irrelevant for today’s world: that we need lots of weak connections (what we call “networking”) over lots of strong
- Forbes picks up on this before others did
- Meanwhile, another Oxford scholar (and Baroness!), mentioned in the House of Lords that she thinks Facebook is rewiring our brains.