Category Archives: Social Tools

Social tools

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:

Internet tribes

Recently, I read Seth Godin‘s new book Tribes. It is a short clever book full of insights on what it means to build and lead a tribe. Godin’s main argument is borrowed from one of Hugh McLeod‘s one-liners:

The Market for something to believe in is infinite.

Or, as Woody Guthrie put it: “Basically, man is a hoping machine.”

As a marketing guru, Godin’s spin on this is a bit more basic, and goes as follows: Rather than “building a brand” or “marketing your product” or “staying on message” in order to win supporters, customers, members, fellow travellers – or whatever you call the people that you want to interact with you – you have to build a tribe.

A tribe in Godin’s understanding is a group of people with shared interest, shared faith that you do together matters – that is it: A tribe is something to believe in – a group of hoping machines working in unison. And with the proliferation of the Internet, the costs of organizing, building, and leading a tribe has been lowered immensely.

Thus, the book focuses on the non-technical (that is: the social) barriers that remain which is hindering people building or leading a tribe. Reading the book, I underlined a few passages, which I’ve turned into a short one-page remix of the book’s main points:

It takes only two things to turn a group of people into a tribe:
– A shared interest
– A way to communicate

A tribe has three elements:
– A narrative that tells a story about who we and the future we’re trying to build
– A connection between and among the leader and the tribe
– Something to do – the fewer limits the better.

If no one cares, then you have no tribe. If you don’t care – really and deeply care – then you can’t possibly lead.

The art of leadership is understanding what you can’t compromise on.

The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.

Leadership is uncomfortable:
It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers.
It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail.
It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo.
It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle.
When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed.

So what’s holding you back?

Fear.

But what you are afraid of isn’t failure. It’s blame. Criticism.

What you have to ask yourself is this: “If I get criticized for this, will I suffer any measurable impact? Will I lose my job, get hit upside the head with a softball bat, or lose important friendships?”

If the only side effect of the criticism is that you will feel bad about yourself, then you have to compare that bad feeling with the benefits you’ll get from actually doing something worth doing.

Consider this: If someone gave you two weeks to give that speech or to write that manifesto or make the decision that would get you started making an impact, would that be enough time? How much time do you think you’d need? What’s preventing you from starting right now?

The Community of Practice on Communities of Practice

Some time ago, I was invited by John D Smith to present my thesis work on Ubuntu as a Community of Practice at the CP Square autumn dissertation fest. CP Square is an online community of researchers and consultants working with Communities of Practice – a term coined by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave, and which is a central part of the theoretical framework for my thesis.

I gave the online  presentation this evening, and if I hadn’t been so darned busy lately with work and moving to a different commune (more on that in a separate blog post), I would have blogged about the presentation earlier so that you’d all could have had had the opportunity to listen in.

Online in this case means via Skype teleconference  and a community chat channel, which meant visualizing my audience while talking, and linking to images that related to presentation in the online chat (NB: they’re not sorted. It’s a mess. I’ll add my notes to the images soon to give some sense of a sequence). It’s not the easiest of formats – a lot energy and rapport goes lost in the ether. But I thought it worked out well. The participants were attentive and inquisitive while remaining constructive and supportive – a real treat.

Actually, I was surprised to get the invitation. But I’ve really relished the chance to revisit my thesis work. As I reread it, I realised that writing the thesis is only the beginning.

Since I joining Socialsquare, I’ve been working with all sorts of aspects relating to communities online, and it’s been great to return to that the my work on the Ubuntu Community and see new ways to extend my old analyses and apply them in new contexts. But most of all, I’ve come back and found just what a good framing the Community of Practice is for understanding online communities, and I hope to learn a lot more on how to apply it from the CP Square community.

Dunbar’s number and Facebook

Recently, 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.

So even if I’m casually surfing through loads of status updates and photos on Facebook, oftentimes I’m not actually maintaining my relationships with these people since I’m lacking the relevant social context to make sense of the information offered to me. To use a phrase of Clay Shirky’s, I am eavesdropping on a public conversation that I have little intention in participating in.

In this way, Facebook relays gossip that otherwise would be unavailable to me directly. As a social tool, it allows my relations to pass on information that otherwise wouldn’t reach me directly. But the problem often is though it allows people to pass on information, it is often very bad at letting people control which information is available to whom. As boyd puts it:

Our relationships have a context to them, not just a strength. That context is crucial for many distributions of information, support and trust. (…) [Social networking sites] expose more about us to different groups of people than we would ever do in real life. All of a sudden, we have to reconcile the bar-hopping facet of our identity with the proper work facet.

Basically, Facebook is offering more social information about us than we would otherwise give out. (yes, it’s technically possible to stop this by using the privacy settings – but nobody can figure those out anyway. Partly because it is an unnatural thing to consciously set up such filters, and partly because you can’t get an easy overview over who can access a given piece of content on your profile.

And that really puts a lot of basic social relations in flux.

As Clay Shirky concludes in this brilliant presentation: It is not the fact that we’re presented with too much information – it’s the fact that our old social filters no longer work. Fundamentally, social tools like Facebook are challenging age-old social norms about who told what to whom. And the challenge seems to be to find new ways – both technical and social – to filter the vast amounts of social information suddenly made available to us.

UPDATE: Many of these issues have been discussed very poignantly in this New York Times article The conclusion hits these themes very well:

Young people today are already developing an attitude toward their privacy that is simultaneously vigilant and laissez-faire. They curate their online personas as carefully as possible, knowing that everyone is watching ?? but they have also learned to shrug and accept the limits of what they can control.

It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another ?? quite different ?? result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves. Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you??re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It??s like the Greek dictum to ??know thyself,? or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter??s Web site ?? ??What are you doing?? ?? can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?) Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they??re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.

This notion of the status update as a literary form has also been explored recently by Nadja, whom I share office space with at Socialsquare, in this longish article (in Danish).

Fields of care and online collaboration

There’s a good discussion over at the Savage Minds anthropology group blog in relation to the recent publication of an article discussing the pros and cons of Open Access Anthropology.

The article has been written by no less than seven anthropologists using email and Google Docs to create an online collaborative space. Following the publication of the article, the authors have also posted it in a CommentPress format, where everybody can add their comments to text.

Interestingly, the follow-up discussion to the article on the Savage Minds blog focuses on why it is so difficult to engage other academics in a follow-up discussion using such an open format like CommentPress. Christopher Kelty, one of the article’s authors, writes:

I for one, am not surprised at what Rex called the ??lackluster success? of certain projects??-like the ??modulations? of (…) the Anthropology of/in Circulation article (…) ? in large part because I have become more and more familiar with the tenacious grasp that sedimented habits and practices can have on people…

Alex “Rex” Golub introduced to the discussion the term “field of care” to describe how we structure our time and priorities, as well as the values we see in our work. As Christopher Kelty sums it up,

… it is something learned, but not quickly, and something social??-it is not possible to simply opt out of it. Whether or not people take up a project in academia is heavily structured by this field of care, which to outsiders starts to look like tradition, conservatism, expertise, or maybe madness, depending.

I’m fascinated by this idea of a “field of care” – it seems to contain our individual goals and the means through which we expect to fulfill them. It is the reach of what we care about. In this understanding, the lack of people engaging with the above article seems to be that it is not part of their field of care. Kelty writes:

For academic contributions to feel meaningful within a field of care, they must also feel special, in the sense of participating in cutting edge research, in work that needs to get done, and to something that plays to one??s strengths? in some ways this was indeed the experience of writing that interview, and not the experience of reading it or discussing it. So absolutely, there may not be much more to discuss in the frame of that interview simply because the moment of participation is over.

What??s more it was conducted in an old-schoolish way, via email and on a private google docs document, and maybe it should have been on the comment press site all along, with invitation for people to comment as the core content unfolded? but that would have been too much of a free for all, and relates to my point that the tools don??t necessarily support the kinds of collaborations we know well and care about.

In a way, the ‘moment of participation’ in which the article came about could only be open to a small group of people collaborating. If it had been open, it would have been a free-for-all, which, quite likely, wouldn’t have allowed seven individuals shape it as personally and thoughtfully as they have (though that, again, is a tradeoff against letting many people get involved with their collective insight and ideas).

This got me to thinking about how social web entrepreneur Ross Mayfield‘s 3 levels of network ties on weblogs might fit with the idea of “fields of care” in the context of online collaboration.

Mayfield posits that there are three different types of networks developing among weblogs: creative, social, and political networks. A concise presentation of these are given in Joi Ito’s collaboratively written paper Emergent Democracy:

A creative network is a flat network of a production-oriented group of close associates with deep trust and dense inter-linking. It is said that 12 people is the optimum number for holding a dinner conversation or a tight team.

A social network is the traditional weblog form. The Law of 150 is a theory that people can maintain an average of 150 personal relationships. The Law of 150 is a bell-shaped distribution where some weblogs receive more attention than others, but the distribution fairly represents the quality of the weblogs.

A political network follows [Clay] Shirky’s power law and is similar to a representative democracy where weblogs receive links from thousands of other weblogs. Each link may be thought of as a vote. The weblogs at the top of this power curve have a great deal of influence.

(…)

It is the ability to operate in all three of Mayfield’s clusters, and to transcend boundaries between them that make weblogs so potentially powerful. A single weblog and even a single entry in a weblog can have an operational purpose, a social purpose, and an impact on the political network. (…) For instance, when I blog something about Emergent Democracy, I may be speaking creatively to the small group of researchers working on this paper; socially to a larger group of friends who are thinking along with me and trying to get a handle on the concept; and on a political level to readers I don??t know, but who I??m hoping to influence with my talk about a new kind of politics.

Following this, it wouldn’t be possible for more than 12 people to collaborate closely on an article such as “Anthropology in/of Circulation”. These collaborators would have the article at the centre of their field of care, at least for the duration of the collaboration. Another 150 people could have the article at the periphery of their field of care, and offer a comment or some sort of modulation (such as this blog post). And thousands of others might read the article and reflect upon it in order to relate it to their own field of care, even link to it, but – for one reason or another – remain passive.

The issue, then, seems to be how to make the most of the potential for collaboration and peer-review from each type of network.

So square

So, I’ve got a job.

This Monday, I officially started working at SocialSquare, Denmark’s premier advisers, builders and communicators of all things related to social media. I stress “Officially” since I’ve already spent a month here on a sort of trial-internship to get to know the people, the projects and the processes. In that time, I even helped write the brand-spanking new company website, so you can learn more about what we do, too.

Along with the new website, the company has officially changed its company language from Danish to English, in a brave attempt to signal openness towards a global market. Since the company works to promote the effects of social media and social network services in our daily lives and help organizations embrace that change, they’ve chosen a name that is intended to reflect that mindset.

Now, if you look up ‘Square’ in Wikipedia, you’ll find it to be a very ambiguous name. But you can rest assured that the Square in SocialSquare isn’t referring to any sort of mathematics or the notion of being unhip. Rather, it refers to the Square as a place – such as the Town Square or the Market Square. The central idea is, that the Internet has made it possible for people to reinvent the Town Square of yore, but since that square is no longer related to a specific place, it exists solely through the sociality of the people interacting within an on-line community built from shared practice, interest, or relation. Thus, Social Square.

Well, at least that’s my interpretation. You’ll note the new, hip way of drawing the two words together, which may obfuscate this somewhat, but I feel that my interpretation gets substantial support from the company… well, it’s not so much a logo as it is a map… of a town square (PDF).

So, apart from documenting internal processes and fussing about the company name, what does my job at SocialSquare actually entail?

I’ve been hired to work as an “Ethnographic Researcher” – that means using qualitative methods to gather information – both within organizations and among their external stakeholders and the prospective users of the services they would like to build – analyzing that data, and presenting these analyses in such a way that they can help the companies make informed decisions as to their social media strategy, or inform an ongoing design process where we help organizations build the necessary platforms for interaction, which they may need.

Basically, the job is a totally sweet spot between design anthropology and the anthropology of social media and on-line communities. At least, that’s my hope and expectation. So far, I’ve been involved with two big projects. One of these I can talk about, which is a project we’re doing for the biggest interest Danish organisation for elderly people, ?ldre Sagen. We’re in the initial phase of figuring out how social media can help bring the family closer together in support of weak or ill members of the family.

You can follow our efforts on the new project blog, which opened recently (Danish only, unfortunately). I’ll be blogging there as the project progresses, sharing some of the ideas and findings that we come upon. On top of that, I’ll be blogging at the SocialSquare blog from time to time.

That means that in way I’ll be paid to blog! Just not here, unfortunately. So updates may remain sporadic for some time. Especially in the coming weeks, as I have a lot of interviews lined up. It’ll be a very busy start, which seems to confirm that there is lots to do in this field.