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Social Networks, The Monkey Sphere, and Moore’s Law of Human Relationships

Just before Christmas I did an interview with the SF Chronicle for an article titled  Year in Review: Social networks come of age by Benny Evangalista.  Benny and I had a conversation about social networks and how far they have come. In the article he conjectures that social networks are here to stay, as is evident by their adoption inside big companies.  Our discussion revived a topic I’ve been wanting to write about after several years of working in this space; social networks represent the next step in expanding the capacity of human relationships.

Telephone, Email, Social Networks and the Monkey Sphere

The Monkey Sphere (also known as Dunbar’s number )  is a theory from evolutionary biology which was derived from the study of groups of monkeys (or more specifically non-human primates) in Africa.  Researchers studying monkey clans found that as a clan’s size grew towards a magical number of 150 monkeys, communication systems would break down, and the clan would break into two separate clans.  These clans would then each again grow to 150 members, split into two groups, rinse and repeat.  Researchers postulate that this barrier of 150 members could not be exceeded due to the communication strain on the clan as the number of nodes exceeded 150.  Dunbar and others postulate this same theory applies to human relationships.

cavemanFor most of human history our interactions were limited to a small social group, generally limited by physical geography.  Much like our primate relatives, this led our ancestors to only maintain relationships with those that they could talk to in person on a regular basis.

Enter the telephone

telephoneThe physical barrier was broken when the telephone emerged. We were no longer required physical proximity to another human to maintain a productive relationship (I’m ignoring physical letters because of their slow communication cycle time).  With the introduction of the telephone our monkey sphere increased monotonically.  But telephones had a limited effect because communication was limited to one on one discussions.

Email

emailNearly one century later the monkey sphere was stretched further by the internet, and specifically email.  Not only could communication happen without the need for physical proximity, but it had less marginal overhead (no small talk), and it was our first of the democratized one to many communication mediums (newspapers, books, and magazines only provided one to many communication capabilities to a limited subset of the population).  Oh, and to add to the argument, email is asynchronous – you don’t  need to participate in the conversation at the same time as the other members.  Our monkey sphere started expanding geometrically.

Social Networks

twitter-facebookBack to my discussion with Benny.  The topic at hand was social networks and how they represent the latest step in expanding our monkey sphere beyond natural levels.  Social networks have no need for physical proximity, they have less marginal overhead than email, they are asynchronous, they are one to many, and increasingly they are public, not even requiring that you know the people you are communicating with (ex: Twitter and the increasingly public news feed on Facebook).  Social networks have changed how, with who, and how often communication is created and consumed.

The telephone, email, and social networks all represent big steps in our communication evolution, and it has all happened in the last 100 years.  Interestingly, it also appears to be accelerating.  I believe that I currently have personal relationships (which I define as knowing their name, face, where they live, what they do, and having shared some experiences together) with nearly 1,000 people.  What next step in communication technology will take me to 10,000 personal relationships? Is it possible?  The communication of our location might give us the next big leap.

10,000 personal relationships might sound ridiculous. But so did a 2 GHz processor in 1988 when I was booting from a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk so I could play video games on my dad’s 10MHz Digital computer. Is it possible there is a Moore’s law for human relationships? I think it is more likely that a Moore’s law exists for human relationships than a Dunbar number.

Moore's Law

Moore's Law

  • http://en-gb.facebook.com/people/Kieran-ONeill/204502770 Kieran O'Neill

    Fascinating idea!

  • http://www.facebook.com/douglas.heaton Douglas Heaton

    Dunbar's Number has less to do with physical space than it does with cranial space. Dunbar's Number stipulates that we can only hold about 150ish social relationships in our heads at once. This is because social information is REALLY complicated. Think about how much stuff you have to know about each coworker. Do they like you? What other coworkers do they like? What coworkers don't they like? What stuff do they like? Who else likes that stuff? What don't they like? Who else hates that stuff? And on and on. Social relationships are far richer in contextual information than just a blurb on Facebook. I would say that we can have more “relationships” because we have far fewer real, social relationships than we used to. Do any of us really know 150 people anymore? Do those 150 people know each other? Do we have to remember what the relationships are like between those 150? The answer, most of the time, is no. Our social relationships have been so streamlined that we are able to have more of them. Are we richer or poorer for that sacrifice? That's for each of us to decide.

  • brezina

    Hey Douglas – great comment. I agree that Dunbar's number has more to do with cranial space than physical space. One thought I had was that reducing the limits of physical constraints we could maybe expand the effectiveness of the limited cranial capacity we have. For example, instead of driving 2 hours to see our grandmother and not be building/maintaining relationships during that journey, we could simply make a phone call and dedicate 100% of our time to the relationship.

    Your second point questioning the quality of our relationships is very valid. It is something I think about a lot. I know I'd more quickly abandon technology than abandon the human experience of having high quality, real, relationships.

  • Stephen R

    Douglas is right — I think this post completely misses the point of the MonkeySphere theory. It isn't about communication channels, it's about the human brain's capability to grasp individual people as individuals. It's the basis behind the old say: “One death is a tragedy; 10,000 deaths is a statistic.” One person you can know as an individual person. You aren't *capable* of truly knowing 10,000 people as real individuals.

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