Human Hardware: How Many Friends Can We Have Online?

In the last column, I introduced British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar’s theory that we have cognitive limits to the number of social relationships we can maintain, and the importance of social grooming in all primates, including humans. Just as a quick recap, based on the relative size of our neocortex, Dunbar calculated that the upper […]

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In the last column, I introduced British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar’s theory that we have cognitive limits to the number of social relationships we can maintain, and the importance of social grooming in all primates, including humans. Just as a quick recap, based on the relative size of our neocortex, Dunbar calculated that the upper limit of our social “inventory” should be about 150 relationships, which has since become known as Dunbar’s Number. Today, let’s explore the implications this cognitive limit might have on online relationships and social networking.

Redefining community

Theoretically, the reduction of friction introduced with an online social network should exponentially expand one’s circle of social acquaintances. In the past, we were restricted by our geography. We could only maintain relationships with people we could meet face to face. Even the introduction of telecommunications (i.e., the phone) served as a way to stay in contact with people we already knew. It’s been some 30 plus years since I picked up the phone and made a random call to a total stranger. Back then, we called it a crank call, and the intention wasn’t really to form a new friendship.

But the internet removes our geographic boundaries. I’ve been saying for some time that the internet redefines community. It replaces geography with ideology. With it, our relationships can be based on the ideas we share, not the space we co-inhabit. Facebook or MySpace expands our circle to include the entire world. My Facebook Friends list includes many people I’ve never met, literally circling the globe. Is Dunbar’s Number obsolete? Do social networks remove the 150 person cap from our social inventory?

So long savannah, hello hyper-connectivity

The answer, it appears, is not a simple yes or no. Again, the internet has introduced some environmental factors that we, as a species, have never had to deal with before. One of the challenges of Human Hardware is that it was built for a world that we don’t live in anymore. Few of us make our living as hunter/gatherers on the African savannah. Our world changes quickly, but the raw hardware of humans changes very slowly. So, while our huge neo-cortex gives us the flexibility of self awareness and rational thought, we are still bound by the evolutionary limits of our brain stem and limbic system, the oldest parts of our brain. Consciously, we’re ready for the internet and all it has to offer. Subconsciously, we’re still preoccupied with genetic survival.

Let’s begin by exploring why we tend to gather together in groups. We do so to improve our odds for survival. And that introduces a pretty strong incentive for the group to stay together. In the real world, that single driving objective plays out in a number of interesting ways that still seem to be the subject of controversy for the nature versus nurture crowd. But almost any social behavior, including gossiping, altruism, kinship and even, unfortunately, racism, has been shown to be tied back to the simple fact that we survive better as a group than we do as individuals.

But online, what is the incentive to remain as part of a network? Before we answer that, let’s look at an important aspect of Dunbar’s theory. The 150 person cap doesn’t apply to everyone we know. We have the ability to recognize thousands of faces and know who they are. Our social database can be immense. Again, the ability to keep track of a large group of people and whether they’re friendly, benign, or potentially dangerous is a inherent survival ability. It’s when we make the decision to start a friendship or a more active social relationship that Dunbar’s number applies. And that’s an important factor to keep in mind when we look at online relationships.

Why we gather online

So, why do we join together online? How important is cohesion to our web based social networks? There are actually two answers to that, the same as there are in our real world. Sometimes we get together to apply the force of numbers to a specific task. This would be in analogous to Dunbar’s definition of a band (e.g,. an overnight camp). It could be an online working group assigned to work on a specific project, a group of people who participate together in an online game, or a forum discussion centered around one specific topic. It all of these cases the group tends to join together and then disperse. There are temporal limits to the amount of cohesion required and often a shared interest is enough to keep the group together for the period of time needed. Again we are wired to lessen our requirements for long-term social cohesion in return for the ability to focus with a small group of people on a pressing issue. This is why, as humans, we tend to set personal differences aside in the face of the crisis.

But the members of our “band” are not necessarily the same as the members of our social circle. Circumstances generally throw a band together. Your coworkers are members of one of your “bands,” but that may not necessarily make them your friends. We make a conscious decision to maintain contact with the members of our social circle. And this is the other reason why we join together online. We join together to keep contact with people that we want to maintain a long-term relationship with, and this is where a greater investment in social “grooming” is required.

Before we look at the nature of online grooming, let’s take a look at the idea of an online “band.” Blogger Christopher Allen did an interesting piece on the optimal size of online groups that would correspond to Dunbar’s concept of a “band.” What he found through anecdotal research is that there seems to be peaks in groups satisfaction in small groups of seven and larger groups of 50. For some reason, group satisfaction seems to take a nose dive when there’s between 12 and 15 members. Dunbar found that the average size of band that he found by researching the literature seems to also be around 30 – 50 members. That roughly corresponds to the second peak in Allen’s group satisfaction survey.

Is this any substitute for face-to-face?

Let’s now turn to the second use of online groups, keeping track of family and friends. Let me begin by using an example from my recent experience. I just returned from Australia for the SMX show in Sydney. Rand Fishkin was another of the international speakers invited. I’ve “known” Rand for a few years now. We’ve met at shows, did the typical greeting in the hallways, and even had a few quick networking conversations. I have always respected Rand for his knowledge and passion, and I believe the respect is mutual. But, by Dunbar’s definition, Rand would have been a casual acquaintance of mine. I didn’t make the investment to include him in my circle of friends. He was not part of my social inventory. He was, however, one of my “friends” on Facebook.

In Sydney, for the two days of the show, Rand and I continued our typical “band” relationship. We were thrown together by circumstance, had mutual respect and were friendly, but we weren’t friends. But, on the day after the show, we ended up on the same ferry to Manly by chance. I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with Rand and his fiancée, Geraldine. And, in that time, I was able to know a little bit more about Rand. I got to know more about his values and his personality. I found an engaging and intelligent person with common interests. We talked about family and future goals, we gossiped (we’re in Search, after all), and we went beyond the typical search conference chatter. In those hours, I made the decision (subconsciously) to invest in including Rand in my social inventory (I’m not sure the decision was reciprocal, I can only speak for myself). By the way, one of the other international speakers, Ciaran Norris, did a particularly relevant blog post on exactly this topic.

I use this example to show that although technically we have the ability to connect with people around the world, we still are hardwired to prefer face to face contact before we’re ready to move someone from the category of acquaintance to friend. Once we make that decision, we can maintain the friendship through online channels, but to make the initial investment decision, there’s still no substitute for face-to-face.

Are there exceptions? Certainly. There are best friends who’ve never met face to face, lovers who found each other online (I assume at some point face-to-face is required to technically qualify as a “lover”), and other examples showing face-to-face is not an essential ingredient, at least at the beginning, but remember, whenever we’re talking humans, we’re talking norms. We have to look at what’s true for the greatest number, the peak of the bell curve.

It not a mystery why we need face-to-face contact. When we are deciding whether or not to confer trust on someone, to make them our friend, we need to read body language and pick up on all the non-verbal cues. Why is trust important? Because, subconsciously, we’re always judging every investment we make by its reciprocal potential. If we buy a beer for someone, we want to ensure that at some point, they’ll buy a beer for us. That is, in essence, how we define trustworthiness. It’s not romantic or altruistic, but it’s true. And when you’re evaluating trust, you can’t judge a person by their SMS message or their email.

As it turns out, there’s research to back me up on this. Dr Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University has found that in social networks like Facebook, 90% of the online friends rated as “close” have met face-to-face. The rest of our Facebook circle are hangers-on, defined as an online “friend” but really, just an acquaintance. The 10% of close friends we haven’t met yet? Friends of friends. We include them because of a recommendation from someone we trust.

So, much as we would like to think that social networks will dramatically extend our friends and family circle, it seems that it’s just another way to keep in touch with people we’ve already decided to invest in. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not rewiring our human hardware.

Online grooming

If online social networks don’t increase the capacity of our social inventory, does it at least reduce the investment in grooming we have to do? Remember, in the first column, I explained how the emergence of language likely enabled Man’s great leap forward, propelling us from rock throwing cave dwellers to civilized masters (and destroyers) of our world. If language significantly reduced the investment required in social grooming, does the hyper-connectivity of the Internet promise a similar jump forward?

This, I believe, is where the true value of the internet lies. And it lies in two distinct areas. First, it enables us to greatly expand the funnel that lies above our social inventory. Prior to the internet, candidates for our circle of friends were limited to the people we met in our day to day travels. But today, if we develop an online voice centered around our passions, suddenly we start hearing from people around the globe that share that passion. If there were no internet, I would have never met Rand Fishkin, or Ciaran Norris, or, for that matter, Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman, or any of the other people in this industry. They would have never entered my funnel.

The decisions to form longer lasting relationships, or, ultimately, to include an acquaintance as a friend, depends to a great extent on the depth and persistence of your shared interest, as well as, of course, the trustworthiness. We have many short term gatherings on line, based on fleeting interests. But the enduring passions tend to lead to long term relationships.

The other great potential for the internet is to enable us to communicate more effectively, again reducing the investment required in social grooming. The strongest social glue is gossip, much as we may hate to admit it. And online, gossip is frictionless.

The perfect example of this is Twitter. I admit up front that I don’t get Twitter. I don’t Twitter, and until recently, I was blissfully ignorant of the entire Twitter phenomenon. But Danny Sullivan was a Twittering addict down under. And although I don’t ever see myself SMSing my life in short bursts of 160 characters, I can appreciate Twitter’s power as a communication channel. It’s instant broadcasting of gossip. What could be more compelling to humans? But again, the interactive part of Twittering, the true networking, tends to be restricted to a small circle of friends. Many listen, but few interact.

What does the future hold?

Even given the cognitive limits of social networks, the Internet introduces several exciting new wrinkles. We can cast a wider net for friends, and it’s easier to keep in touch with them when we do make them. Also, it turns the idea of transactive memory on its ear. Previously, we had to know someone fairly well to know their areas of expertise. Now, a well structured search query can suss out dozens of experts on any topic imaginable. Knowing what they know isn’t the problem. Knowing if we can trust them is. There, at the nexus of search and the social graph lies an area of great promise. Facebook has gone here once before and fumbled it miserably (Beacon), but sooner or later, someone will get it right.

The other challenge will be reconciling the potential of our social networks with our cognitive realities. I’m still struggling with how to make Facebook useful. Who do I accept invitations from and who don’t I? For me, one of the most exciting and useful things about Facebook, or any social network, is Stanley Milgram’s Six Degrees phenomenon. If I want to make contact with someone, chances are they know someone I know, or knows someone who knows someone I know. I suspect that the Facebooks and Linked Ins of the world have reduced six degrees of separation down to two or three degrees at the most. And that, in itself, is a rather mind numbing prospect.

There’s no doubt that the Internet will significantly change our social relationships, but I think it’s equally important to keep in mind that no matter the technical potential, it still has to be compatible with the same hardware we’ve had for thousands of years: our Human Hardware.

Gord Hotchkiss is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

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Gord Hotchkiss

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