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Social Networks and the Monkeysphere

August 24, 2007

A few dots connected for me this morning. This time, the connections raised more questions than answers… but, hey, those are always the most interesting dots anyway, aren’t they?

I followed a link from SecondLifeInsider to an article in CNN about griefing, to a wikipedia article about Dunbar’s Number. Primatologists analyzing the size of social groups in primates noticed that the size of the troop is directly related to the size of the brain. They theorize that this limit represents the mazimum number of meaningful social connections that primate neurology can manage. Based on human neurology, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar extrapolated that for humans this limit is around 150.

That would suggest that an average human cannot maintain meaningful connections and relationships with more than 150 people, beyond that perimeter people stop being people and start being (at best) 2D stereotypes and eventually just statistics.

There is a hilarious (and totally irreverant) discussion of this topic Inside the Monkeysphere. “Inside” the 150-person limit we can create meaningful relationships. We’re fundamentally wired to treat people “outside” that limit dramatically differently.

Whether you agree with the science, or believe that 150 is the right number, it is conceptually sound that there is a limit to the number of rich social connections we can maintain.

Then when I read JP’s latest Facebook and the Enterprise post about online communities, it made me wonder about the relationship of the internet in general, and social networking tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Bebo, etc, etc, and our limited neurological capacity for meaningful relationships.

Do these tools provide some sort of scaffolding that helps our constrained monkey brains manage a larger number of “real” relationships? Or do they just help us keep track of connections that have little or no substance? Or do they help us continually “upgrade” the 150 active connections we maintain so that they’re very high quality? Or just so that they are highly aligned with our own views?

How do we keep the noise of hundreds or thousands of facebook or linkedin “friends” from swamping the signal of the connections that really matter to us, that really add value?

I wonder what research has already been posted in this area?

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