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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Debunking Dunbar? (Part 2 of 2)


I’m back to talk about my celebrity guest, Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist I’ve been researching. He’s fascinating and I don’t mind admitting that I’m a little obsessed with him. But I think this will be the last time I mention him for a while, so fear not. Soon I’ll go back to other favorite topics like flamingos and how to avoid housework.

In my last blog post, I was raving about Dunbar. But in case you think I’m tipsy on Eggnog (nope—wrong again—I don’t do Eggnog!), it’s not just me. Others think he’s a genius, too. In my research about Dunbar, I came across a writer whose reaction to Dunbar’s Number turned from scorn to reborn. Rick Lax wrote an article for Wired Magazine in which he set out to debunk Dunbar’s Number. It’s quite a fun story, so get comfortable and read on.

(In case you didn’t my recent blog post about Dunbar’s Number, you’ll need some background info if you are to understand today’s post. The nutshell version is that Dunbar’s studies of cultures show that humans can maintain approximately 150 real connections to others. And in a related point, what do you mean you didn’t read my last post?!?!?!??!?)

Rick Lax came across Dunbar’s Number in late 2011, and at first he was a disbeliever. Dunbar’s theory about how many true relationships we can nurture did not match up with Lax’s stats: Lax had more than 2,000 Facebook friends--although he admitted he didn’t have a lot of contact with all of them. Dunbar maintained that to call someone a friend meant you needed an individual interaction with someone. Lax took this as a challenge and decided to disprove Dunbar’s findings by writing a personal note to each of his Facebook friends.  (For the full piece check out Wired.com for Rick Lax’s article, “Dunbar’s Number Kicked My Ass in Facebook Friends Experiment.”)

Lax started alphabetically and kept his messages short. He soon realized how many friends he’d added in the last decade—and forgotten about. Likewise, most of these friends were surprised to hear from Lax.

Even before Lax started on the Cs, he realized he needed to make the process faster and he began to leave wall posts instead of writing letters to friends. He knew this was not as personal as an email but admitted that writing 2,000 individual emails would take a very long time. In writing his thousands of Facebook friends Lax realized that a lot of time had passed since he had last contacted many of them. He had very little involvement in most of his contacts’ lives. Some responded to his notes by asking if they actually knew each other.

Lax hit a stalemate before he reached the Js. He converted to Facebook’s Timeline and lost access to the alphabetical friend list. Lax had contacted 1,000 of his 2,000 Facebook friends and that was more than enough to convince him to conclude his experiment. Here’s what he wrote:   

“In trying to disprove Dunbar’s number, I actually proved it. I proved that even if you’re aware of Dunbar’s number, and even if you set aside a chunk of your life specifically to broaden your social capital, you can only maintain so many friendships. And “so many” is fewer than 200.

Writing my Facebook “friends” had taken over my time. I was breaking plans with real friends to send meaningless messages to strangers. Some of the strangers didn’t respond, and many of those who did respond only confirmed Dunbar’s theory.

I walk away from this experiment with a newfound respect for 1) British anthropology and 2) My real friends. There aren’t too many of them, I now see. So I better treat them well.” (Wired.com)

Sarah again:

My two cents (well, I’m long-winded so it may be more like 22 cents) is this: I think it’s important to connect with the people around you. Yes, in 2015 many humans do not need to live in tribes the way we once did. But that does not mean we must be or should be like islands, completely separate from those near us. We all need others at some point. Neighbors may be the modern day equivalent of tribal members. I’m so fortunate that I live in a neighborhood where we know and help our neighbors. Proximity isn’t the only thing that bonds people but it opens a door to friendship. Several times I’ve called my neighbor Lisa and informed her that I would be over in five minutes to borrow her baking powder. I’ve watched friends’ kids when they had job interviews. Once I asked my friend/neighbor to come over and sign for a fridge when I couldn’t be home for the delivery. Neighbors have borrowed our tools, our truck and our vacuum. Neighbors may come from different countries, speak different languages, and live mostly separate existences, unlike the days of the tribe. But we have a lot in common, too, and most of us want to feel connected to our neighborhood and those who live nearby. Our tribal associations may be looser than they once were (unless you’re a contestant on Survivor) but we can be part-time tribe members. Or on-call tribe members. Yep, that works for me…

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