Monthly Archives: January 2009

Dunbar’s number revisited

A while back, I made a brief reference to the so-called Dunbar number in relation to my list of friends on Facebook.

Since then, I’ve spent some time reading up on Dunbar’s number and the concept of friends on social networking sites, and feel the need to delve deeper into this discussion. danah boyd, one of the leading researchers on Social Networking Sites, has made the point that

Friends lists are not an accurate portrayal of who people know now, who they could ask favors of, who they would feel comfortable introducing at the moment. They’re a weird product of people from the past, people from the present, people unknown, people once met.

Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I find this to be exactly right. I have loads of contacts on Facebook that I haven’t seen, nor kept in touch with in ages, only now I have a sort of ambient awareness of what is happening in their lives. It’s like having a auto-updating version of the various social spheres I happen to be in. I guess the most apt metaphor would be a college yearbook – the original facebook – that updates itself everyday.

So, how does this relate to Dunbar’s number? Well, Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist who hypothesized that “there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, that this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.”

Dunbar sought to prove this hypothesis by correlating a number of studies measuring the group size of a variety of different primates with the brain sizes of the primates. He used these correlations to produce a mathematical formula for how the two correspond. Using his formula, which is based on 36 primates, he found that 147.8 is the “mean group size” for humans, which he found to match census data on various village and tribe sizes in many cultures.

So that’s the basis of the Dunbar’s number of 150 relationships. But as Christopher Allen has done well to point out, reducing Dunbar’s research to just one number would be misleading. As he concludes: The “Dunbar’s group threshold of 150 applies more to groups that are highly incentivized and relatively exclusive and whose goal is survival.”

Similarly, boyd sums up Dunbar’s point quite well:

Just as monkeys groomed to maintain their networks, humans gossiped to maintain theirs! He found that the MAXIMUM number of people that a person could keep up with socially at any given time, gossip maintenance, was 150. This doesn’t mean that people don’t have 150 people in their social network, but that they only keep tabs on 150 people max at any given point.

But one thing is how many active social relationships we can have – i.e. how many people we can keep up with socially in a reciprocal fashion. Another thing is how we know these people and how well we know them. Our social relationships come with both a context and a strength of your shared bond. The context and the strength of our relations is crucial for how we distribute information, support, and trust among our friends.

Typically, we can group our relations in various groups based on the context of the relation: People we know from work, from school, from hockey practice, or people we know through our significant other, people we’ve been introduced to by another relation. Until social networks like Facebook came along, these groups rarely overlapped and got a chance to meet. But these social networks suddenly expose more about our contextual relationships to different groups of people than we would ever do in real life, and we end up having to reconcile the bar-hopping facet of our identity with the paid work facet.

Clay Shirky does well to analyse the consequences of this new social situations. As he argues: It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure: All of the sudden people are able to discover new social contexts in which their friends are part because the filters, which people had in place are no longer working:

Arendt’s dilemma

Found a very interesting piece on Hannah Arendt through the Savage Minds blog. It focuses on a central dilemma in Arendt’s writing: That between the public and the personal, and how it is expressed in her view on politics. A few excerpts:

Arendt‚??s experience at the Eichmann trial bolstered the belief that defines her political philosophy: that there must be a rigorous separation between love, which we can experience only privately, and respect, which we earn in and require for our public lives. (…) A dignified individual existence, she believes, requires distance from others (…) Compassion is dangerous, in her view, because ‚??not unlike love,‚?Ě it ‚??abolishes the distance, the in-between which always exists in human intercourse.‚?Ě What preserves that distance, on the other hand, is pride‚??the pride of equals that she finds exemplified in the political realm, the ‚??public space.‚?Ě

This view of politics may help explain why, in ‚??The Human Condition‚?Ě and ‚??On Revolution,‚?Ě Arendt exalts it as the highest of human activities. Politics, in her work, is not really an empirical concept‚??an affair of elections and legislation, still less of tax policy or Social Security reform. Everything having to do with economics, in fact, Arendt prefers to exclude from her definition of politics, relegating it to the nebulous category of ‚??the social.‚?Ě Real politics is found, rather, in the deliberations of the Founders in Philadelphia, or the debates of the Athenians in their assembly. It is an affair of exceptionally talented individuals‚??people not unlike Hannah Arendt‚??arguing with one another under conditions of equality and mutual respect.

Still more revealing than Arendt‚??s definition of politics is her explanation of why people are drawn to it in the first place. We do not enter the political world to pursue justice or to create a better world. No, human beings love politics because they love to excel, and a political career is the best way to win the world‚??s respect. In ancient Greece, she writes, ‚??the polis was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements that he was the best of all. The public realm, in other words, was reserved for individuality; it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were.‚?Ě Arendt recognizes that most of the people of Athens, including all women and slaves, were shut out from this arena, but she accepts that her kind of politics is necessarily an aristocratic pursuit. In yet another instance of her favorite metaphor, she defends ‚??the bitter need of the few to protect themselves against the many, or rather to protect the island of freedom they have come to inhabit against the surrounding sea of necessity.‚?Ě

Nothing could be more characteristic of Arendt than the longing for respect and recognition that shines through these seemingly abstract arguments. All her experiences as a woman and as a Jew (…) goes into her yearning for the masculine, aristocratic freedom of the Greek polis (…) At times, Arendt‚??s love of the public and the political, and her fear of the private and the psychological, becomes almost neurotically intense. As she wrote to McCarthy, ‚??the inner turmoil of the self, its shapelessness,‚?Ě must be kept under strict quarantine: ‚??It is no less indecent, unfit to appear, than our digestive apparatus, or else our inner organs, which also are hidden from visibility by the skin.‚?Ě

Too much of life and too many kinds of people are excluded from Arendt‚??s sympathy, which she could freely give only to those as strong as she was. If, as she wrote, ‚??it is the desire to excel which makes men love the world,‚?Ě then our love for the world actually makes it harder for us to love the people who inhabit it. This is the dilemma that runs through all Arendt‚??s writing, demonstrating that what she observed about Marx is true of her as well: ‚??Such fundamental and flagrant contradictions rarely occur in second-rate writers; in the work of the great authors they lead into the very center of their work.‚?Ě

I find this tension between public and private, between the desire to excel and the love for close relations fascinating. How can one balance the desire to be respected by many with the desire (need, even) to be loved by few? I suspect that this is the dilemma that lies at the root of much stress and depression which affect so many people today: When we cannot combine these two domains, the tension between them tears us apart.

Siamese Dreams

Thai Sunset

Back in Denmark after almost 3 weeks in Thailand. We landed in Copenhagen on Friday, de-stressed and re-charged. Ready to seize everyday life and make it wonderful.

I’ve posted some of our travel pictures on my 23 account. I won’t really bother to go into too many details about our trip. We spend a few days (and Christmas eve) in Bangkok before heading south to Koh Chang, staying there for New Year’s (albeit with a nasty bout of diarrhea that dampened the big night), beforing heading back to Bangkok to buy belated Christmas presents and try out Theravada Buddhist meditation.

But now, I’m back. And I feel like writing. So expect more blogging to come.