Sunday, March 18, 2012

Facebook and the Availability of Friendship

To be a friend to many people in the complete kind of friendship is not possible Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII

There is a nice moment in Desmond Morris’ documentary “The Human Zoo” where, as he ponders the means by which the human animal deals with dense urban living, he hoists his address book and declares: “This is his [the urban dweller’s] personal tribe!”  People in cities don’t, of course, have intimate personal dealings with all their fellow denizens, rather they interact with a small circle of friends, family, close associates.  Now, the membership of personal tribes does not fully overlap, and thus networks of interactions radiate out to include the entire population.  The central insight here is that arguably we have replicated a primordial social condition of people, though in a greatly modified way, in the city.

From a social evolutionary perspective such as Morris encouraged we can ask how many people might we typically have in our personal address books?  Twenty years ago, anthropologist Robin Dunbar provided an answer.  That answer: 150!  This is, he claimed, the number of people we might “naturally” interact with.  Numbers of intimates greater than this call for a special explanation.  In contemporary times information-communications technologies (ICTs): cell phones, Facebook, Skype, twitter and so on, may assist in extending the scope of our social networks [1].  Having an “external memory” can amplify our essential capacity for friendship.  And amplifying our otherwise stubbornly restricted somatic capabilities is what technology does best, after all.

Dunbar’s observations were based upon a supposed relationship between the size of the primate brain’s neocortex and the size of the average social group. Dunbar, as we have seen, predicted a social group size for humans of about 150 [2].  This value, known these days as Dunbar’s Number, seemingly finds support in analysis of social aggregations of hunter-gatherer tribes, military units and even Christmas card networks [1].  Lending further support, and contradicting at first glance the notion that ICTs extend human networking capabilities, Facebook assessed the average number of friends to be between 120 and 130 and recently, and that number comes up again as that which can be stably maintained in the twitterverse [3,4].   Arguably, therefore, we are cognitively limited in the number of social contacts we can maintain.  Beyond Dunbar’s number we simply run out of cognitive steam.  So, we may be acquainted with an extended circle of more than 150 but beyond the 150 mark we know very little about them.  How well, after all, do I know Brad Pitt, say, or for that matter Robin Dunbar?  Not as well as my family or those who might share a social beverage with me.  Dunbar’s contention is that one simply does not have the neurological wherewithal to expand the circle beyond upper limits.

Critics of Dunbar have pointed out empirical exceptions to this proposed limit to group size – aggregations that are both larger, and that remain stable (an important matter) despite their larger numbers.  Even when the relationship between neocortex volume and social group size across primates is granted, there is a lot more variability in the size of human group than would be implied by Dunbar’s number.  It is precisely on the questions of both how technology and other cultural methods allow us to transcend the “natural” limits and the subsequent quality of relations with supernumerary intimates that Dunbar and his critics seemingly diverge.  Dunbar, at least in the analysis of de Ruiter and colleagues, argues beyond certain limits humans need to find alternative mechanisms for bonding (alternative to “grooming” and “gossiping”, the two mechanisms closest to Dunbar’s interests) in order to go beyond 150.  De Ruiter and colleagues counter that “we have never ceased to look for “alternative mechanisms” for bonding” [1].  The point, it seems, is that humans have always had cultural methods for extending effective and persistent social group size.  We could do this even without Facebook!

It is hard to see that there is, in fact, a huge distance between Dunbar and his critics.  Dunbar, it is true, may be a little more insistent on the naturalness of a group size of around 150 than others, but he recognizes considerable variability about the mean.  Additionally, he explicitly recognizes that cultural accoutrements are mechanisms whereby intimacy is maintained in large groups.  Indeed, with a number of co-authors he argued that language emerged as a supplementary bonding mechanism to sustain large groups [5].      
Dunbar has written recently on Facebook and the significance of this social networking tool for group size [3].  As I mentioned, Facebook’s own survey indicates that Dunbar’s number, or slightly below, is the average number of friends linked to an account.  However, there is a great variability about the mean.  Dunbar suggests that though one may have vastly in excess of 150, typically the surfeit friends are “voyeurs” and one does not, in fact, have a relationship with these supererogatory pals.  Most of us will have anecdotal evidence to sustain his point.  For instance, on a trip to India a couple of years ago a colleague who has over 2000 friends on Facebook forgot her password.  To verify the account she was invited to identify several of her “friends’ which she could not do.  Of course, those who have such large number of friends, often maintain their accounts for professional reasons (as was the case for my friend).  Facebook, in such circumstance is more like a rolodex rather that a list of intimates. 

One the other hand Dunbar argues that one of Facebook’s great contributions has been to slow down that rate of at which our relationships decay.  We can, by means of Facebook, coalesce the fragmented geography of friendship. It is this spatial dispersion of friendship that is a hallmark of our contemporary relationships. We flit around accumulating a friend here and there – our friends barely know each other.  But there may be a contradiction, in other words, in Dunbar’s assessment of social networking tools.  On the one hand he doubts that beyond the first 150 we have any real relationships on Facebook, and yet he concedes that such tools prevent the attrition of yesteryears friendship.  We stand a better chance of maintaining friendship that might otherwise undergo rapid attrition (which happens Dunbar’s team asserts after about 6 months of emotional detachment).  Therefore, it seems reasonably to suppose that as tools like Facebook age alongside us we may overcome both the spatial and temporal entropy of friendship. 

Perhaps if Desmond Morris was reflecting on the persistence of tribal structures in urban society these days he would illustrate the point by referring to Facebook rather the personnel address book.  Both tools, the obsolete and the innovative one, provide a convenient roster of our family, friends and acquaintances.  So Morris would be able to make his point with recourse to either of these technologies.  However, Facebook offers us more – it appears not just to provide us with a convenient mnemonic device, it offers the means of friendship itself.  We can carry out a range of cordial tasks on Facebook: we can post, comment, like, poke (does this even exist anymore?), chat, re-share, or indeed quietly monitor the lives of our friends.  That we can relate in a friendly way online is not, of course, necessarily a positive thing. Perhaps we’d prefer to have friendships run their course, as they would have in the absence of social networking tools. 

My point is this, and I have taken a while to come to us, is that Facebook as a technological assist that can breach the limits of our neocortex (if we grant this to Dunbar) makes friendship available to us like never before.  Arguably the hard work of friendship is transformed into an object of easy consumption.  So, let me ask, is Facebook to friendship what a pop tart is to food?  Since I happen to appreciate both Facebook and pop tarts, I don’t ask this venomously.  But at the same time, I appreciate the vegetables that I am about to marinate and slowly grill as much as I enjoy the jaunt to the coffee-shop and relate to my friend one on one.  Let me part therefore by voicing the suspicion that virtual friendships facilitated by information-communication technologies can, in the absence of scrupulously maintaining those older forms of friendship technologies (which might includes inconveniences like walking to the local pub) results in a sort of spiritual bloatedness equivalent to the unhealthiness that a steady diet of poptarts produces.

1.         de Ruiter, J.; Weston, G.; Lyon, S.M., Dunbar's number: Group size and brain physiology in humans reexamined. American Anthropologist 2011, 113, 557-568.
2.         Dunbar, R.I.M., Neocortex size as a constraint on group-size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution 1992, 22, 469-493.
3.         Dunbar, R., How many "Friends" Can you really have? Ieee Spectrum 2011, 48, 81-U95.
4.         Goncalves, B.; Perra, N.; Vespignani, A., Modeling users' activity on twitter networks: Validation of dunbar's number. Plos One 2011, 6.
5.         Dunbar, R.I.M., Coevolution of neocortical size, group-size and language in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1993, 16, 681-694.

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