Monday, June 15, 2009

Musings on Dunbar's Number: When do we "max out" on friends?

On Friday, June 13th, 2008, a 20-year-long friendship came to a sudden, though not unexpected, end. I'd thought it was one that would last a lifetime; people don't generally see each other through so many of life's obstacles, victories and rites of passage only to toss aside one's partner in crime. Precisely how something that had seemed so fireproof went up in smoke within only a matter of months is a mystery that will confound me for years to come, if I let it. It is, perhaps, energy best spent elsewhere - I'll get to that - but the fact remains that I learned a solid and valuable lesson from the experience: There is no such thing as a sure thing. Oh, and as a TV show once told me (I listen to what the television says, you know), "Trust no-one." Damn straight.

I preface my ponderings about Dunbar's Number with that bit of background mainly to exemplify one of its biggest points: Damage to our innermost social "ring" can knock you off your axis for an incalcuable amount of time, and you might surprise yourself with what measures you'll take to try to rebalance yourself. All of our "social networking" and society's sudden, strange fixation with "collecting" friends as Readers or Followers might be a direct result of us trying to fill a void - one that should be reserved for only a very few VIPs - by stuffing as many acquaintances into it as technology will allow.

"But what the hell is Dunbar's Number?" you're thinking. You don't really wanna read on if I'm going to babble and analogize and never explain the theory. I don't blame you. So here's the quick and dirty Wikipedia definition, for a start:

Dunbar's number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar's number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.

Dunbar's number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized 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." On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again.

That is only one facet of the theory, of course, but at its basest, it shows us that we all have a limit on how many balls we can juggle, and how valuable our nearest and dearest are in the grand scheme of things.

If you're like my mother, your immediate reaction is to say, "Uh, no. My social circle doesn't come close to a hundred and fifty people." But when I started to elaborate - "Think of your Christmas card list, and all of the people who are offshoots of those people!" - my Mom had to admit that it sounded more plausible with an expanded definition. I used the analogy of our own personal universes having orbits around them, or Bohr's rings, each populated by different "levels" of people in our lives. The innermost ring, for most, would include a significant other, or one's children, siblings, or best and oldest friend. The next ring would feature other close relatives and friends who are central to one's life. The next might have longtime colleagues or in-laws. And so on. It's a highly personal thing, the organization of one's particular universe, but you get the idea. Once you start to extend it to include the other people who exist in your sphere, in whatever capacity - those you know through work, old friends you only see once a year, people you've met through your boyfriend/best friend/boss - it's not hard to imagine 150 as being a reasonable middle-ground kind of number.

I'd never heard of this theory before a few days ago - odd timing, really, since I hadn't realized that it was the anniversary of the annihilation of that aforementioned friendship upon which I stumbled across Dunbar. Of all days to be learning about the delicate balance of our social circles and the damage that can be done if an inner ring is somehow disturbed, I had a one in 365 shot that it would be that day. I hadn't even recognized it as being a day of any significance until I was reminded by someone about where I'd been a year ago that night, and things all fell into place from there. And yes, the theory is correct about just how whacked out your social connections can get when a fundamental party is obliterated by circumstance (death, divorce, drama). I'd experienced it before I knew that it had a name.

The theory goes on to explain that we, as social creatures, are in a constant state of flux - the outermost rings of people coming and going, changing in their composition or their degree of importance to us - but that it is more important than most of us realize to keep some semblance of sameness to, if nothing else, the sheer number of people we're trying to juggle. With the onslaught of new social networking media, like Twitter and Facebook, we're bombarded by (or is it "with"?) the minutiae of more and more of our most distant contacts every single day...and it's screwing with our heads. Those of us who used to have close-knit circles of only our dearest friends and family, numbering nowhere near that magic Dunbar figure, are now in constant contact with people who would otherwise be relegated to "work friends" or "old schoolmates" or people we had simply shed as part of the process of growing and moving on. That's not to say the internet hasn't been an amazing tool, helping us to reconnect with countless people with whom we'd lost touch and being able to pick up where we left off; I don't know anyone who doesn't have at least one happy "you'll never guess who found me on Facebook!" story. But there's a flipside to that element of our lives: The energy we each expend nowadays, trying to maintain all of these new or revived relationships, can be exorbitant, and I know of a startlingly high number of people who suffer from what I call Facebook Guilt. It's that feeling you get when you see how many messages have been sitting, unread, in your inbox for days, and the endless little comments or virtual gifts left for us each day - kind and thoughtful though they almost always are - that makes turning on your computer start to seem scary as hell. It's the cyber-version of drowning in paperwork. Throw Twitter into the mix, add in your 24/7 availability via text message on your cell phone, and the capability to IM anyone from anywhere...and I'm betting your number has soared well beyond 150 and into the realm of "holy HELL how do I make the BEEPING stop?!?"

It's not just me. Honest.

So Dunbar has applied the whole "apes grooming each other" thing to us humanfolk, and has postulated that we're in danger of being driven crazy by too many people in our sphere or having parts of our lives and personalities neglected if we have too few. A line from "Trainspotting" has come to mind frequently as I've pondered my own circle of friends: "It's a tightrope, Spud. A fucking tightrope." Truer words have ne'er been spoken. As our Contact Lists grow longer, our time spent cultivating the face-to-face variety of friendship grows inevitably shorter, and eventually we'll all find ourselves either loaded down with 400 expectant people or a scant few who can be bothered with us since we blew them off to catch up on our unanswered email or ignored them as we texted furiously under the table at dinner.

I didn't have to think for long before I could say with absolute certainty that the number of people in my life who deserve to be slapped with the Truly Important To Me label is laughably higher than 150. I say that not to boast nor to complain, but rather to marvel. I didn't do an actual headcount, but I didn't need to. A quick scan of the people who can read my locked blog + the number of contacts on MSN + the list of cell numbers stored in my phone + the friends and family on Facebook = a metric crapload. (I mean that in a good way.) The majority of those people are ones I've known either long or well (or both) and would never want to "lose" in a Dunbar shuffle. I think that puts me in the realm of Critical Mass. And one might make a good argument that spending so much time tending to so many, and wanting to keep up on the details of that many lives, has (and still could) cost me some of the relationships I've had since before I became @prettyh. Would I change it? Nope. Do I recognize the insanity of somehow really knowing such a high volume of people, and the effort it requires to be an active participant in their lives? YES. And since most of them (you might be one of Them, if you're reading this) are in the same boat, I think it's safe to say that they realize it, too. Thank goodness for that; I'm lucky to have a mightily forgiving lot of inhabitants in my life, all of whom know that the expected turnaround date for an email response or a phone call or a ReTweet or a night at the movies has grown exponentially longer because our social circles have exploded.

(Anyone who knows me at all just laughed aloud at the idea of me voluntarily making a phone call. It was just an example.)

It wasn't my ever-expanding clan that rendered my decades-old friendship extinct; the death of that relationship was inevitable, with or without 'net access. But I've seen it happen to other people, trading precious RL moments for a chance to bask in the adulation scrolling across their computer screen. I suppose the whole point of this blather is to say that we've lost sight of our Number and why it should matter to us. We expect ridiculous things of ourselves as we try to mete out the appropriate amount of time and attention to each and every member of our worlds and, without proper perspective, we're constantly in danger of denting our Inner Rings by letting the weight of the Outer ones crush toward the centre. Which is us. We are at the middle of our own universe by its very design; people are in our orbit. And we are in theirs. And we're no good to anyone if we're spread too thin, spending countless hours ignoring the relationships in front of us in favour of sending mass forwards to our 6,342 "closest friends." A tightrope, indeed.

Does it shoot all of my credibility to hell if I confess that I Twittered about this very subject only days ago? Ahem.

Take a good, hard look at your Number. Count your rings. Ask yourself if they're prioritized correctly. If the answer is no, it's time to back away from the mesmerizing pull of seeing lives in 140 characters. If the answer is yes...well, then, you're probably a lot further ahead of the rest of your pack. And Dunbar would be proud of you.

1 comment:

Morgi said...

"holy HELL how do I make the BEEPING stop?!?"

...and suddenly I find it sad that the bulk of my received tweets come from fictional characters.

It's also interesting that the tightest lockdown on my LJ is two people, neither of whom I've ever actually met, one I've only known for just under a year.