Can Social Technologies Increase Our Dunbar Limit?
Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
Welcome back. Sorry for my digression on Social Network Analysis (SNA) last week. I really thought that was a good introduction to SNA and really helped highlight some of the historical development in the field. For those who have watched it, I hope you learn something. Now back to Dunbar’s magic number!
Previously, we examined Dunbar’s number in great detail. By understanding how Prof. Dunbar estimated his famous number, we can identify two potential mechanisms for potentially raising the Dunbar limit: the number of stable relationships that we can maintain.
- First, you can maintain more relationships by reducing the attention devoted to each. This, as we’ve already seen from an earlier post, will tend to result in weaker ties strength on average.
- Secondly, we can also make socializing more efficient, so it reduces the time and attention needed to develop and maintain our relationships.
We’ve talked about the first mechanism in an earlier post, and this time we will discuss the second. Since this post is a continuation of the previous, I recommend skimming through the following posts if you haven’t already read them.
Socializing vs. Communicating
Last time I briefly described another hypothesis of Dunbar. It claims that the evolution of a larger human neocortex that enabled language processing has made socializing more efficient so that we don’t have to spend as much time and attention on social grooming. This is what pushed the Dunbar limit for humans to 148, which is substantially higher than other primates that have smaller average group sizes.
It is therefore very tempting to make the following argument: If technologies can make socializing more efficient, so it reduces the time and attention needed to develop and maintain our relationships, then we would have more attention resources to spend on extra ties. Thus, we can only expect modern group sizes to increase. But can modern social technologies really make socializing more efficient? Let’s examine this more carefully.
First, I must emphasize again that “social” is not a revolution! Humans have been socializing for thousands of years. In fact, even chimps and monkeys socialize via social grooming. Modern social technologies arise from a communication revolution. If you look back, I’ve been careful to use the term socializing, as opposed to communicating when I talk about building and maintaining relationships. We have changed the way we communicate, but ultimately not the way we socialize. Let me explain what that means.
Although the internet has made communication more efficient in many ways, it is also limiting in other ways. The internet cannot transmit many nonverbal signals (e.g. touch, scents, physical proximics, body languages, etc) that are often very important for relationship building. Psychologist knew all along that nonverbal signals are extremely important part of social communication. Research suggests that nonverbal cues are 4.3 to 13 times more effective than verbal cues. Moreover, people who have difficulty sending or receiving nonverbal signals often have serious problems with interpersonal and social relationships. Some of these problems are so debilitating that psychiatrists have considered them disorders (e.g. autism spectrum disorders and Asperger syndrome).
Language Evolution vs. Communication Revolution
So what is the difference between language evolution and communication revolution? The difference is that the evolution of language is an addition to our previous means of socializing. It is an additional channel of information to the other nonverbal cues. However, modern communication through the internet is more like a replacement of our previous mode of socializing. When you communicate through the internet (by making heavy use of the newly evolved verbal channel of language), you’ve completely eliminated all the nonverbal channels.
Even if you use voice and video, the subtle details that your sensory system can pick up from a face-to-face engagement is far greater than the Internet’s current capacity. The fragrance, the sense of touch, the eye contacts and feedbacks, they all tell you something about a person that you cannot put in words. Finally, just ask yourself a simple question. If you want to establish a relationship with someone, would you prefer to only socialize with him/her through the internet, or would you eventually want to meet the person in real life?
Since social technologies are not able to help us build relationships more efficiently, I must come to consensus with Prof. Dunbar that modern social technologies probably cannot increase our Dunbar limit any further. Last time we discussed the tradeoff between the number of relationships we maintain and the strength of these relationships. To some extent, this is the limit we have to work with, because our attention resource (emotional intensity and time) is limited and hasn’t change in the recent evolutionary history of mankind. Therefore, in order to maintain more ties, we either have to lower the overall tie strength (see figure 1b), or simply maintain fewer number of super strong ties (see figure 1c). In either case, the average tie strength is weaker. However, the blue-green area under the curve (which represents our total attention resources) remains the same, and it is equal to the yellow area in figure 1a.
Social Technologies Provide Greater Accessibility
Despite the somewhat disappointing finding (that social technologies cannot help us maintain more relationships), technologies do bring something new to the table. Two points deserve special mention here. First, it helps us overcome the limitation of distance and time. With social technologies, we can now meet like-minded people from all over the world who speak the same language. And we can talk to them anytime. Thanks to the asynchronous nature of communications on Twitter, Facebook, communities, and social networks, we have easy access to a whole new world of people that we could never reach before.
Second, social technologies can help us maintain accessibility to a huge number of ties that are so weak that they would ordinarily be forgotten or lost in real life. Social networks help us maintain these ultra-weak ties because social data are persistent and searchable, so we can always search and look up the forgotten engagement with these acquaintances. These ties are not the stable relationships that Prof. Dunbar talked about. Personally, I would not even consider these real relationships, because I almost pay no attention to them. It is like having a few extra pages of names tagged onto the bottom of my address book that I never bother to look at. Since these ultra-weak ties take virtually no attention, we can have many of them in our online social network. But that doesn’t mean they are real relationships until we spend the time and attention to develop them.
The accessibility brought about by social technologies is very valuable, because it gives us more choices on how we allocate our limited attention resources. In both cases, it lets us choose from a much larger pool of candidates to whom we want to spend time with or pay attention to. So we can spend our limited attention resource on people that are most interesting to us and matter most to us.
We have covered a lot today. So let me briefly summarize everything:
- Socializing is more than merely communication. It includes many non-verbal cues that are extremely important for building relationships.
- Social technologies are not likely to increase our Dunbar limit further because they cannot help us socialize more efficiently. So we can only maintain more relationships by redistributing our limited attentions resources.
- The value that social technologies bring is the ease of access to a much larger population, so we can make the best use of our limited attention resources on people we care about.
Alright, now that we have a deeper understanding of Dunbar’s number from the attention economics perspective, we are ready to use it to explain some long observed phenomena in social media. Before I reveal the topic for next week’s discussion, let me ask you a few questions:
- Does your company or brand have a FB fan page?
- Does your work involve working with a FB fan page?
- Do you find it hard to engage your FB fans?
If you answered YES to any of the above questions, then next week’s post should be very relevant to you. So stay tuned and watch out for my twitter feeds. In the mean time, I welcome any questions, comments, criticisms and suggestions as usual. Or we can just discuss on the science of social.
And don’t forget next week’s social customer virtual summit. If you are planning to attend, please be sure to come by either my live chat sessions (which is in the agenda) or head over to the Networking Lounge if you want to chat with me. I’m always happy to talk. If you have not registered, you can still register now. It is FREE. I hope to see you there.
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