Social isn’t dead but virtual communities may leave you wanting.

A couple of weeks ago Katie Boehret of the Wall Street Journal reviewed, a clever, useful private social network for you and your neighbours. You can connect with the people you live beside, exchange information on the best local dentist or most reliable babysitter,  improve community awareness, enhance neighbourhood security and stay informed about what’s going on next door. Twelve thousand neighbourhoods are using it; I love the idea. Katie had a couple of niggles – well defined boundaries may be an issue – but she gave it quite a positive review.  It got me thinking, about communities – and online communities. If you used how many ‘friends’ or neighbours would you have? Probably around 150, perhaps as many 200. I’m not guessing – instead it appears science dictates or at least suggests that’s likely to be the size of your community. It has probably been so since neolithic times, through medieval times, and remains so now And not just in humans, but in all primates.  The evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar used the size of the neocortex – the thinking, higher function part of the brain – as a basis for formulating his theory on social group (we’ll say community) size.

The group size you would be comfortable with, called Dunbarr’s Number (a title coined by an unknown admirer, not the Professor himself) is based on a simple social situation; what is the number of people you would be comfortable rekindling a friendship with if you met one night on a stop over in the transit lounge at Hong Kong airport. Professor Dunbar has arrived at the number of 150. The most interesting collection of reading material on virtual communities is the Cyberculture Reader and in it Dr Maria Bakardjiieva’s writes in her essay, VIRTUAL TOGETHERNESS: An everyday-life perspective of ‘immobile socialisation’  or in other words, ‘socialisation of private experience’. She looks at Raymond WIlliam’s work on ‘mobile privatisation’, the word community itself and reminds us that it is seldom used with a negative connotation. It’s a warm phrase – one that conjures up thoughts of relationships that bring emotional reward, support and a like-mindedness. Bakardjiieva talks about what motivates participants in her survey to be members of ‘virtual communities’. Motivations that seem more diverse, and I think personal – than the traditional motivations for those in a real-world community. In real-life there is that unavoidable face-to-face contact, you are motivated by proximity – you really do have to talk to your neighbours whether it’s to borrow a lawn-mower or a flint-axe sharpener.

Social media as we know it now,  appears to be fragmenting at an increasing rate. Why? Data protection and privacy have become issues over the last two weeks, but disregarding that lets just look at the numbers again; hundreds of millions of users on various social networks – a billion of us using Facebook; these aren’t communities albeit, the subgroups of friends are virtual communities, but those smaller groups themselves are often too big and too diverse – particularly amongst 18-24 year olds – you simply cannot sustain relationships with that many friends. Indeed, Robin Dunbar puts it succintly when he says that we only have so much social capital; that defined amount of available capital must be divided between a our circle of 150, or 500 friends. Clicking ‘Accept’ to a friend request is so much easier than meeting and learning about someone – even in the days when IRC, AOL or CompuServe chat tools were popular it required frequent and lengthy interactions before people truly felt they knew each other in any social way. And as for existing groups of friends with new entrants – as soon as you click Accept to the Friend of a Friend you change the dynamic of the group – the (virtual) community and sometimes in a negative or debilitating way; my Friend’s Friend may be my new friend, but he knows nothing of Formula One history from the 1980’s – and isn’t that one of the triggers for passionate debate just before closing time on Friday nights?

“If the new friend can’t contribute online, if they just don’t get it – will it inhibit the rest of the group from exchanging in as vocal, sarcastic or witty way as we normally do? Our actions are altered – conversation takes a different route – the dynamic changed, or even gone.”

I’m not advocating social exclusion but people form groups for diverse reasons. Perhaps we will see the emergence of social  {intersection} networks – communities connecting with communities, rather than individuals? I should clarify, I am not counting Google Plus, LinkedIn or Twitter for instance, as Social Networks. ‘Friend’ themed sites like FaceBook and others can slow the decay of friendships with people who have moved overseas or eloped in a hurry, but these friendships will generally decay. As well our core friends group, there may an extended group of 50 more people we would rekindle friendships with, but we need a spark to ignite the rekindling, and that spark is likely to be face-to-face contact. Professor Kevin Robbins argues in an essay entitled Against Virtual Community that new technologies may contribute, through the erosion of significant external reality to the depletion of the real resources of social life and experience. I love social media and use it every day but I do believe we’ve gone a little awry as electronic connections grow pervasive. Have we allowed ourselves an expectation that virtual communities can replace or perhaps short-circuit, one of the most intriguing elements of our sociological nature, the need to belong? Perhaps we’re not deluded at all, and social admiration, one-upmanship and narcissism are the real motivators for growing our virtual communities. Last week Stephen Smith on BBC’s Newsnight program looked closely at the explosion of photography by digital natives – and there were too many quotes that the reason to take and post photos was to simply to make ‘other people jealous’; one remarkably lucid American girl at a Wanted appearance was the only spoiler when she said, ‘you’re more in the moment’ without the wanton snapping. Distance has always been the enemy of friendship – and despite the immersive enthusiasm of the The Thumb Generation, it remains so. In his book Touch, Gabriel Josipovici remarks on what happens if that distance is eliminated,

‘To abolish the actual journey, with all its attendant dangers and attractions, with all its temptation and seductions, was also to abolish the therapy’.

I for one remain up for the therapy, now and always.

External links & references

  1. Robin Dunbar : Why the internet won’t get you any more friends
  2. Dr Maria Bakadjieva: University of Calgary
  3. The Cyberculture Reader: Kennedy & David Bell  
  4. 18-20 yr olds have an average of 500 friends on Facebook
  5. Roland S Burt: Attachment, Decay and Social Network 
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