Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Who's your Dunbar now?

Who are your “150”?

Here’s your Tuesday exercise. I read an article in December shared by a friend on Facebook. The author interviewed a medical professional – psychiatrist, psychologist, I no longer recall – about the capacity of the human brain to maintain meaningful relationships with other humans as applied, of course, to online behavior.

The “expert” deduced that our internal computer could handle only 150 significant relationships.

What the expert and the interviewer never specifically cited was the well known Dunbar number. According to Robin Dunbar, you can connect in depth with only 150 people. Apparently, he tested this in apes, mice, roaches and such. The roaches were off the charts! I kid.

Seriously, that a hack would “originally” surmise such a concept well known to professionals in the field of marketing offended me just a smidge. I was inspired however to test the theory unscientifically.

Using Facebook as a playground of sorts, I endeavored to whittle down my then 579 friends into a comfy 150 with whom I have regular or occasionally meaningful contact. Okay, I’m a bit more social than many. I get it. It’s kind of my job. But how many of my social interactions are truly “meaningful”?

I methodically downloaded my Facebook friends list to an Excel spreadsheet. (Two hundred of you are snickering right now. Stop it. I can see you. I know where you live.)

It took a week and five passes:

  • First pass: 329. Easy. Mostly family and people I know in real life (IRL) and hope to interact with amicably from time to time, plus high school friends, recent business associates and potential clients. If you don’t ever post anything or if your content is racist, largely misogynistic or homophobic, welcome to the wayside. The freedom of the web also brings out true colors. I pay attention.
  • Second pass: 296. A thinner version of the first pass. How well do I really know you? Do you ever post meaningful shit on Facebook or elsewhere?
  • Third pass? 248. Now it’s getting tough. You’re a couple and I like you both a lot. But one of you posts regularly about your lives and the other is a ghost. Call this third stage the Spouse Slicer. I know if I keep the active spouse in my list the other, equally cool spouse will likely hear about anything interesting I’ve written. That's a wash in a mildly comforting way. Nevertheless, hard feelings will happen in several cases.
  • Fourth pass: 176. Damn, this was a hard one! Splitting hairs here. Seriously, this phase was challenging, as challenging as finding the favorite five albums with which you’d like to be stranded on an island assuming you had a working, sand-free turntable and unlimited electricity. How well do I really know this person? Can he help me out in the future with a job hook-up? Can she fix my plumbing in case of a major leak? Did he contribute to a major milestone in my life like participating in my billiard binges or teaching me how to jailbreak a Twinkie?
  • Fifth pass: I’m in misery here. Utter, complete misery. I’m cutting out family members and old, lost friends to make room for those interesting personalities embodied by a handful I’ve not yet met. I’m forced to zero focus on those who really stand out based on dedication, loyalty, and personality.

What I learned? As difficult as the whittling was, once I steeled myself to reach the 150 mark, it became suddenly easy to go beyond. As hard as it was to approach 150, it became less challenging to apply the same brutal criteria to reach 136.

Don’t get me wrong. This exercise evoked some serious, if passive, mental anguish. It was an exercise in mental curiosity after all. I had to close the laptop lid and walk away a few times, though. I value the interactions I have, I experience, I create. On Facebook in this case, most of my meaningful interactions occur behind closed doors.

I live in the world of private messages precisely because “the world” doesn’t need to know my every thought. In fact, of the 579, if I’ve never interacted with you by private message or publicly, leave a public comment on my profile. I guarantee it will be fewer than 30 people, most of whom – by their preference – don’t spend time out there anyway.

Bottom line: For the purposes of this exercise, who are your Facebook 150? Who are your IRL 150 (family, friends, coworkers)? Instagam? Pinterest? Twitter?

I thought about these different platforms – and real life – and found the results to differ, as they must. From a purely anthropological perspective, we must adapt to a particular environment to survive socially. With one billion Facebook users, I figured that would be the best place to start.

If you’re reading this, I am happy – honored even – to have known you for some period of time long or short. To each his or her own.

Concluding this experiment, I will send a message out to the list I created based on the final 150. I’d be interested to hear thoughts whether positive or not. And I challenge you to do the same, to create your own Dunbar list. I hope to find a spot on it, but will understand if I don’t.

More than ever, I'm interested in the feedback you'd care to share on this topic in the comments below.



Amy said...

This is beyond brilliant! I'm half tempted to try it to see if I come to the same challenges you found yourself facing.

wrytir said...

Thanks for reading, Amy! It turned out to be quite the emotional experience even if it was just an exercise. I also know that the individuals on that list are somewhat different from say an "In Real Life" list leaving me to wonder if Dunbar's number was meant to be universal.

As hard as it was to reach and then pass the target, there was some consolation then in being able to add people back in.

I'm glad I tried it once. I won't be doing that again.

Have a great day.

Anonymous said...

I'll gladly assist you with the Twinkie, sir.

Pat Redd said...

Count me as one of the ones who snickered about downloading the Facebook friend list to an Excel spreadsheet. I didn't even know that was possible !

wrytir said...

Ha. Thanks for reading Pat (and Vivid). The background on that is that I created a monster workbook to plan my wedding. Everything was in there. When someone had a question about something, the joke became, "Look it up on the spreadsheet." I still get grief from people three years later, all in good fun of course.