The Dunbar Number and the Limits of Social Networking

The Economist looks at whether Dunbar’s number, the supposed limit of stable social relationships, holds true on social networking sites.

That […] online social networks will increase the size of human social groups is an obvious hypothesis, given that they reduce a lot of the friction and cost involved in keeping in touch with other people. […]

Primatologists call at least some of the things that happen on social networks “grooming“. In the wild, grooming is time-consuming and here computerisation certainly helps. But keeping track of who to groom—and why—demands quite a bit of mental computation. You need to remember who is allied with, hostile to, or lusts after whom, and act accordingly. Several years ago, therefore, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who now works at Oxford University, concluded that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop.

Two items of note: Facebook has an “in-house sociologist”; and this man, Dr Cameron Marlow, reveals that the average number of friends correlates pretty closely to Dunbar’s number.

via Mind Hacks

4 thoughts on “The Dunbar Number and the Limits of Social Networking

  1. Cedar

    I have enjoyed your postings, since kottke recommended you. I had noticed the same article, and am very interested in using facebook as a tool for investigating human behavior (I am a psychologist as well). You can see more about the Marlow’s facebook data team by joining that group on facebook. It is curious to me that the social media research world is dominated by computer scientists, with surprisingly little input from psychologists.

  2. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    I really think social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are powerful tools for, as you say, “investigating human behavior”.

    As a computer scientist I get the impression that such networks, while evidently ubiquitous and powerful, have still not gained an acceptable reputation in the social sciences enabling them to be studied widely and with respect.

    Of course I may be wrong, but I feel this may be part of the issue with computer scientists dominating this field. Surely this situation can only improve as younger psychologists and sociologists—who are not only comfortable using these networks, but respect the data they offer—come to the forefront in their respective fields.

    Thanks for the heads-up on the Facebook group for the data team. I’ve just joined!

  3. Cedar

    You are absolutely right, we academic social scientists are both slow to adopt new technology, as well as to acknowledge its significance. Even slower than the rest of the world (I am sure you can still find many an academic who doesn’t use email). Although, with facebook and twitter, it seems to be a common affliction. The mainstream journalism on it until very recently has mostly treated it with bemusement as a fad that kids do these days (even the head of TechCrunch implied as much at a recent conference with Zuckerberg). I think it is a big lost opportunity to treat everything new as a fad, as if there was some equivalence between facebook and the snuggie.

    Oh, also, I subscribe to your RSS via my google personalized page, but every time I click on one of the headings, your page says I am coming from google, and may want to subscribe to the RSS. Just a little tic, if you wanted to fix that.

  4. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Once again, I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments.

    Interestingly, it seemed to me that the mainstream media accepted social networks (especially Twitter) when ‘celebrities’ started using the various platforms and talking about doing so openly.

    Maybe the ‘rock star’ social scientists are the ones who are needed to change the preconceptions of the masses (read: primarily journalists that regurgitate social science research).

    (I’ve changed how that plugin works… hopefully you won’t get that message any longer.)

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