First of all, thanks for your comments on my previous post, where I posed the question on Digital Dunbar numbers. The views espoused helped me understand a little more about the area, led me down a few new garden paths, and led to a place where I could crystallise a little more of my own thinking of the subject.
Let’s start with my assertion that in a digital world, we can deal with bigger Dunbar numbers: not trivially bigger, but potentially multiple times bigger. Which is why I said I think I have a Dunbar number of around 300 right now.Â Why do I think this? Let me try and explain in my normal roundabout way.
How do I become friends with someone else? Usually it follows some sort of pattern. I start with not knowing the other person.Â We meet by spending time doing something or the other together, some narrow single-dimensional activity. Like work. A shared hobby, like contract bridge or billiards or folk music. A regular habit, like going to church, or the local pub. A common sport, like golf or squash.
The narrow single-dimensional activity can therefore be a source of new friends. But contact does not make friendship. What happens is that we spend time doing something together, and while we spend this time together, we get to know each other. Unintrusively. That’s important. Unintrusively.
This getting to know each other is actually a subtle discovery of some simple likes and dislikes, common interests, differences, habits and styles. And every now and then something happens, nothing you can describe easily. It’s not mechanical, not calculated, not planned, not predictable. You decide to do something else together. Share a meal, go to a movie. Meet each other’s families. Go to a poetry reading. Play golf. Something other than the activity that brought you together in the first place.
And so this narrow single-dimensional relationship starts widening. Becomes multidimensional. And again, every now and then, something happens, nothing you can describe easily. The ships that passed in the night decide to anchor closer together. And you become friends. Sometimes, again for no apparent reason, you stay friends for life.
Is that the way you see friendships happening?
I’ve never “planned” friendships, nor really tried to analyse what happens, so this is fresh ground for me.Â It appears that there is an introductory or “meeting” phase, a discovery or “getting-to-know-each-other” phase, and then something much harder, a “keeping-in-touch” phase. Without the keeping-in-touch the friendship withers and dies.
What I see happening in the digital world is this:
There are more meeting places. More markets where conversations take place. Search costs have reduced.
Deep discovery costs have reduced.The cost of discovering similarities and differences and common interests and habits and character is lower. You can find people with similar long-tail interests more easily.
Communications costs are lower; there are also many more ways to keep in touch. So the costs of keeping in touch are lower, and it’s easier to perform the rites of passage.
But all this would have meant nothing except for one more thing. Travel costs have reduced, international barriers have come down, people fly around much more than they used to. This is the catalyst. The catalyst for the capacity to increase Dunbar numbers.
I think I understand why I have a bigger Dunbar number. The digital world helps, but a digital world cannot by itself raise the Dunbar number. I make a point of spending time with people I know in the different cities and countries I visit on business; digital tools help me make this happen.
There’s something beyond this, something that Malcolm Gladwell touched upon in The Tipping Point. Weak interactions matter. Low-intrusion, protecting personal space.
So I think it’s become easier to make friends, easier to stay friends, provided the friendship in the digital world is reinforced by regular real-life meetings. Increased travel and the use of social media makes social interaction more effective, suggesting the possibility of raising the Dunbar number.