Friends on standby
A fascinating recent piece on the economist regarding Dunbar number and the size and volume of activity of facebook networks shed some light on the structure and organisation of our online networks. With the explosion of social technologies and life-streaming tools a big question arised: Are people who use Facebook and Twitter increasing their Dunbar number, because they can so easily keep track of so many more people?
Dr Marlow found that the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120, consistent with Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis, and that women tend to have somewhat more than men. But the range is large, and some people have networks numbering more than 500, so the hypothesis cannot yet be regarded as proven.
I always felt it’s a shame that the “my
pines number of followers is bigger than yours” mentality (previously technorati rank or feedburner numbers) always dominate the hyperball conversation with the explosion of any new social technology darling.
Previously facebook and now Twitter, the focus is predominately on volume of networks and not on the quality of relationships as I think it should. Personally,aAfter that initial connection, I’ve found myself interested in quality, not quantity.
I might be extrapolating too much from my own behaviour (and a quick research i ran around friends) but I’ve found that the natural cycle of emerging social platforms is something like that, to use facebook as an example:
The hype phase:
- Found many old friends (many of whom you’d lost touch with), and enjoyed chatting about the last 10 years or whatever.
- Accepted invitations to whatever apps and shtiks those friends sent you and had (minor) fun playing with them
- Replied to / commented on loads of status updates / photos uploads
- Checked all updates and notifications
The maturation phase
- Began removing the apps that seemed pointless
- Began ignoring requests and invites that didn’t interest you
- Began to spend less and less time conversing with the old friends after the initial “Wow – how’ve you been for the last 15 years”, except
for a couple of friends with whom you found you still shared common interests.
- Keeping in touch mainly with core social circle
- Started logging on less.
(I suggest try some tweaks and apply/adjust accordingly to twitter, you’ll find similar patterns)
That seems to be the case with most of facebook users as their in-house sociologist (man, that sounds like a total dream job to me) found in his observation:
What also struck Dr Marlow, however, was that the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom he (or she) frequently interacts is remarkably small and stable. The more “active” or intimate the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group. Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.
After the initial novelty/excitement phase where we formed our network, most of us end up actively maintaining relationships with just a few and I bet you that the vast majority of these few are people we’re in touch with through various other platforms – email, mobile, IM and obviously socialising in the physical world. Constant online contact had made those ties immeasurably richer, but it hadn’t actually increased the number of them; deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that.
So here is the interesting bit – is there any reason to have 150 friends on my network if I only connecting with just a few of them? Is there really a thing we can call ambient intimacy or are we all simply broadcasting snippets of our lives to no apparent audience but our closed friends?
I think that there is an obvious trap in looking at only two forms of interactions – strong vs. weal ties or core vs. periphery. A deeper analysis of the data is needed to get a better picture on different kind of interactions and to try to capture the fluidity and complexity of our networked society or as Neil said “These multiple degrees of connection are fluid and ever changing. Frequency of interaction can change, loose associations become strong, strong ones become looser”.
One interesting way to think about this is the concept of friends on standby. Of course we cannot maintain intimate relations with 150+ people. But there is surely potential value in having all those connections (both as a whole as well as individually) for us to turn on to whenever we find the good reason to. And while there might not always be an immediate ongoing value for us as individuals, it’s society as a whole that can benefit hugely from the fact that we are all connected together.