Tag Archives: facebook

Dunbar’s Number–Why Your 1000+ Friend-Having Friends on Facebook Are Really *Not* Paying You Any Mind

My post for the Ministers Of Design Blog

Revolutionary evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has the answer to the question of how many friends do you need. The Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University earned the coveted honor of having a number named after him when he posited that 150 is the number of people we can maintain a meaningful social connection with.
Robin Dunbar arrived at that number by conducting a study of the Christmas-card-sending habits of the British. Amongst some of the findings of the study were that about a quarter of cards went to relatives, nearly two-thirds to friends, and 8 percent to colleagues. The chief finding, however, was the number of cards sent out always seemed to converge around the number 150. Over the past two decades, he and other researchers have arrived at 150 as the magical Pi-like number of social relationships. “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us,” Dunbar explains. “Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
Dunbar’s work has been of tremendous interest to social media architects who initially conjectured that this number could very easily climb in the baseball-card-version-of-friends world of Facebook and its ilk. Facebook conducted research on this: while the median friend count on Facebook is 100, for most people (84%), the median friend count of their friends is higher than their own friend count. “Facebook has muddied the waters by calling them all friends, but really they are not,” Dunbar states. He regards Facebook’s main impact on social circles as an ability to preserve long-standing or long-distance friendships that might otherwise decay rapidly. The downside, he suggests, is hanging onto old and remote friendships prevents us from making new non-remote ones: “Since friends exist to be shoulders to cry on (metaphorically speaking!) and shoulders that are physically remote aren’t much use for crying on, this might not be ideal.”
The scope of Dunbar’s work is significantly larger than the rather reductionistic concept of 150 and he has continued to conduct research and expand his study of human social interaction. And while Dunbar’s number has been critiqued, it has managed to withstand the test of replication, remaining relevant event  two decades later ( for example, research conducted in 2011 on Twitter found the average number of people a user regularly interacts with falls between 100 and 200). Dunbar agrees that people have different social networks for different purposes, but he qualified the term “friend” as a person we have an emotional connection with, independent of his/her utility to us: “Someone like your boss, or the person you borrow $50 from to pay the drug dealer, these people are meaningful in your life, but they’re not meaningful to you as relationships.”
The ultimate question remains not how many friends one can have on Facebook but how many friends one actually pays mind and heed to. As Dunbar explains, “Yes, I can find out what you had for breakfast from your Tweet, but can I really get to know you better? These digital developments help us keep in touch, when in the past a relationship might just have died; but in the end, we actually have to get together to make a relationship work.” Dunbar was first inspired to conduct this sort of research when he examined the grooming patterns of apes–what differentiated the humans was not just brain size but, much more importantly, the capacity for language. This capacity, funnily enough, is what is hyper developed in the world of social networking, yet Dunbar would argue words are hardly the glue of a strong emotional bond. Real meaningful interaction, research shows, still remains face-based and not word or baseball-card-collection-based.

Disconnect Movie Review

My review of the film Disconnect

In some ways, Disconnect, the new film by Murderball director Henry Alex Rubin,
is American Beauty for our wired world, an arresting look at the complicated entanglements that technology can create. Merely calling it a cautionary tale about the dangers of the big bad Internet would be reductionistic, however–sure, none of the calamities that befall people in the movie are terribly novel and, in fact, seem directly plucked out of headlines, but it’s the acting that lends a very human touch to what could have otherwise run as a public service announcement. The film’s title could be interpreted as a reference to the disconnect and alienation the characters feel from each other and for the need for all of them to simply click the log-off button and disconnect from the webs they are so inexorably captured in.

Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) are a married couple still mourning the loss of their baby. Their relationship strained by Derek’s stoic way of dealing with it (think the very male “I don’t want to talk about it” scenario), Cindy turns to an online support group for help, developing a cyber friendship with a man. When all of their assets are stolen by an identity thief and they seek to find the culprit, they are forced to face their own estrangement. This is one place where the movie mildly sputters, especially on the technological tip. For example, the private investigator tells them that this person “knows everything about you,” as though the fact that the thief has their vacation pictures is of the most relevance here when he has emptied out their bank accounts. Also, the explanation for how one can get a credit card number on the Internet and how a “Trojan” works was ham-handed at best and seemingly aimed at an audience that apparently has yet to learn what the definition of phishing is. The typing out of chat conversations on screen is also a bit clunky.

Jason Bateman turns in a compelling performance as a high-powered/Blackberry-indentured lawyer, oblivious to what is going on in his son’s life. When his son is the victim of cyber bullying, he plunges into a world of self-condemnation and guilt and turns to Facebook, ironically the very source of the tragedy, to “get to know” his son. Frank Grillo plays the overwrought father of Jason, the cyber bully. The film does a good job of showing how bully behavior is often a learned behavior and one that has roots at home. It also excellently portrays the vicious mean boys/mean girls school environment today’s youth have to contend with.

Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is a career-minded, unscrupulous TV reporter who convinces Kyle (Max Thieriot), an 18-year-old webcam model, to participate in her piece on the underage sex webcam industry. Initially, she appears to mean well, but quickly finds herself way in over her head and her motives become increasingly loathsome and self-serving. She uses Kyle to further her career yet does nothing to really extricate him from the life he is trapped in, especially when her actions literally endanger his life.

Disconnect thrums with suspense and maintains an undercurrent of threat to the very end. The acting is engrossing even though the character development leaves a bit to be desired. Ultimately, it does a good job of portraying just how elusive “reality” is starting to become in the superficial world of Facebook and social networking. Are the characters revealing their true selves and unspoken truths when shielded behind a screen or are they acting out an alternate identity in the digital playground? And while they somehow manage to weave their way back towards at each other, the costs are undoubtedly high. Disconnect manages to avoid the pitfall of being overly didactic and preachy, even if the subject matter could have been something plucked out of cyber security awareness month brochure.