NOTE: The following post was originally published in my Twitter blog “Beyond 140.” Find more of my Twitter-specific posts there.
“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, via wikipedia
I’ve been reading some interesting things lately (here and here) about Dunbar’s number as it applies to social networking sites. Essentially, the number breaks down like this for social networking profiles (via Read Write Web):
“According to Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s “in-house sociologist,” that number is four if you are male and six if you are female. As the Economist reports this morning, Marlow’s research indicates that the average Facebook user has a network of about 120 friends, but only has two-way conversations with a very small subset of these ‘friends.’ Interestingly, even for those users who have a far larger number of friends (500+), those numbers barely grow (ten for men and sixteen for women).”
While Marlow’s assessment relates directly to FB, which is quite unlike Twitter, the general conclusion is interesting. Namely, that there are only so many people we can reasonably and thoughtfully engage given the fixed capacity of the human OS and available relationship RAM.
Mindless following: social capital
This leads me to ask, as others have, why we are following so very many people in services like Twitter when the reality of our attention is so limited. Author and social reseacher Mary Hodder cites the following example (in a comment from my post about protected updates):
“The other day I had a woman lash out at me on twitter for not following back everyone who follows me. She followed 6k people and I pointed out that there was no way she could read all those people all the time. I actually wanted a list of people I could reasonably follow. In other words we all have our own way of doing it, and while people may be judgmental, I was not judgmental of her for giving those she follows a false sense that she actually reads all their stuff.”
A couple of other things struck me about the import of Mary’s comment. First, the fact that anyone would admonish her for “not following back” and second, that this person would deign to tell a social theorist her job. While I don’t object to challenging authorities on their ideas, I do object to empowered ignorance (i.e., critiqueing somebody’s ideas without having any meaningful knowledge of the origins or contexts of that person’s prior knowledge or work). Which leads me to my final point.
Connecting with a person without prior social knowledge, history, context or capital is only part of the problem with the impulsivity of following on social networks.Many people, for example, quickly add anyone with a high profile for no other reason than that that person has a high profile — without engaging – on even the most superficial level – that expert’s body of ideas or context. I see thousands of people follow, for example, danah boyd – many of whom have likely not so much as read a single post in danah’s blog or research papers. Ironically, danah rarely posts much at all on Twitter, which seems a bit of the punchline to the joke of following authorities without reason (i.e., if she’s not posting about her work, why are you following?). Which is why I follow danah as a symbolic gesture of my respect for her work, which I’ve been reading and engaging since 2003.
My (Twitter) identity: Yours to discover (or invent)
That we cannot expect every new connection to take a moment and click on our website or read our about page is what I’m getting at. That some people are willing to connect without making so much as a momentary investment in context is a really questionable expression of “connection.” If you’re communicating with a person on a daily without doing so much as a rudimentary exploration of their identity (even a visit to their site) you are properly connecting with an *idea* not a person. A fictional character built on your own subjective guesswork, misreadings and convenient assumption. Our resulting relationship, in that context, is highly propblematic. Particularly when people start describing this relationship as “knowing” someone. We can certainly “get to know” someone but doing so requires actual effort on the part of both parties. Which leads me to my final thoughts.
Mindful following: social signal
While I myself continue to make connection with new people and add new people to my network based largely on the promise of a meaningful connection or shared interests, I also see the opportunities to mindfully engage these people decreasing with every new follow I add. While I certainly increase the “variety” of the tweets I’m viewing, I’m also creating more and more distance between myself and the handful of people whose tweets I might follow as more of a cohesive or narrative self expression. Instead, I get only a fleeting blip on the social radar of every person I have come into contact with on the service. As these blips increase so, too, does the noise. Imagine yourself at a giant coctail party catching only snippets of conversations – totally decontextualised from the speakers and their larger narratives. Misreadings, among other things, would arise with greater frequency due to the lack of context for what is being shared (and with whom).
I’m still wrestling with the issue of how many people I can meaningfully follow. For now, I’m discovering that of the close to 300 people I follow, only a handful post with any regularity. So the Dunbar number is also influenced – highly – by participation metrics. I can safely say that I’m not going to reach that number any time soon based on the volume of my follows who actively participate. But I will likely make a decision at the point at which I can no longer keep up and likely write about that when it occurs.
This is my speculative conclusion at this moment. I don’t see it as a permanent position I desire to prove or reinforce but a considered perspective that may change in time. And I’m fully ready and interested in developing these thoughts with the help and insight of others – also engaged in similar questions.
No doubt, you have a lot of opinions about all of the above – including your own insights and questions. Please take a moment and share them below. I’m interested in knowin the following:
1) What do you think about Mary’s comment about following 6K people and what this says about your approach to engagement?
2) How many people do you currently follow and how would you characterise your Dunbar number?
3) How much of an effort are you willing to make when choosing to follow somebody? Do you visit their links? Read through their recent tweets, explore their friends lists? Are trust metrics a meaningful part of that choice?