I came across an article written in 2007 about the approaching ubiquity of social media and how our need to utilize these networking tools may be explained by evolutionary psychology. In case you’re wondering how long ago 2007 was, this article prioritizes Myspace before Facebook and LinkedIn in front of Twitter when listing emerging “start-up” social media sites. Overall though, it’s a great review of Robin Dunbar’s book Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language which was written in 1997. In case you’re wondering how long ago 1997 was, consider the fact that you wouldn’t have been able to search the book on Google, because Google had yet to be founded.
The piece was written to speculate how, a decade after they were published, Dunbar’s theories hold up as the world becomes ever increasingly connected. There are many different topics touched upon (including the way grooming was linked to power struggles or how we gossiped before we even had the ability speak—I encourage you to read the entire article), but there was one part that I felt was particularly relevant enough to bring up again in 2011:
“[W]ith the new tool of language, humans managed to increase their group size significantly from the 50 or so members that characterize baboon and chimpanzee groupings. But over the last 10,000 years or so, we seem to have hit another ceiling for an optimum group size in which members are reasonably in touch. That number is about 150, a figure supported by examples that range from the size of Neolithic villages to military units to corporate management theory. Organizations, of course, get bigger than that, but as they do they change character: bureaucracies, levels of authority, social stratification begin to emerge. Dunbar theorizes that this may be due to the limits of how many individuals one can converse with, based on the acoustics of speech, and still have time to take care of life’s essentials.”
The article notes that social networking (again, 2007) is only in its “earliest days” and speculates that while it certainly has the capacity to increase our circle of “friends” past 150, there’s a chance that we’ll find it to be the number at which our ability to socialize with others a reasonable amount is capped.
So I’m raising the question again, four years later, after the global boom of Facebook and other forms of social media that have thus far survived the “start-up” phase: have we increased our circles past 150? I have just under 700 Facebook “friends” which is half of what the majority of my sorority sisters have. Do the “acoustics of speech” Dunbar talked about matter so much, now that we almost never have to speak to make a connection with someone? Now that we can Facebook chat while we do our homework, or message someone via Twitter straight from our phone as we walk to class, does that negate her objection that over-socializing would interfere with “life’s essentials”? Yet are we “reasonably in touch” with that creepy girl from high school who friended us two years after graduation?
I guess what I’m really trying to ask is if, in today’s world, becoming “friends” with someone on a social media site means you’re letting them into your pack of primates, or if that’s a privilege relegated to the people with whom you can communicate without a screen.