Thinking more about Digital Dunbar Numbers

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.  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.  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.  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.

14 thoughts on “Thinking more about Digital Dunbar Numbers”

  1. But one thing which will never change is the amount of time you have in a day, month, year. Because we have a limited amount of time, and that limitation will never change, if we have a larger number of friends, we therefore have to spend some amount of time less with each one (on average) to be able to have more.

    The end result is a higher Dunbar number but less depth to the friendship.

  2. You’re right, Nate. I guess where I was coming from, the motor car allowed me to travel further than by horseback, but I did not consider that the depth and quality of my journey had deteriorated. [Though sometimes I feel I would be better off on horseback].

    I have a capacity for friendship; if that capacity was constrained by set-up transaction costs then my contention would be true; if the constraint was in friendship running costs, then yours would hold. Does that make sense?

  3. I disagree Nate. Before, you would for example have to tell one story over and over again (report / inform / entertain, whatever) to several people you would like that to share with – I can still read faster than I listen.

    I also read more from people than they would tell me usually over time, the conversation gets faster.

    I have one close ‘offline’ friend though we found us online as kind of soulmates. It is hard to keep the relationship up as we live in different city, short phone calls etc. The work to be invested in that is much higher than I have with others. I do not get to know every bits and such, but I do get more than just something on the surface.

    I see how they interact, what they care about etc. There are friends from the job I left, they do not life in the net world. It is much much MUCH more work to even get the updates / conversations I take part in from my online friends. So yes, the time in the day is limited. But the way one can use it is much more elegant and efficient.

    Yes I dare to say efficient about something like friendship. You can call it differently and hide this ugly term, but it is about that. For me it is not that the time with friends has decreased, but it is a rise in time spent with people who could become friends as we get to know each other.

    But I like to say one point: There are a lot of people out there who can’t take this kind of interaction, who hate it. Who consider “real life” to be the only thing which counts.

    That is fine! But for them, not for me. I recently go through my nearly 700 xing contacts. Around 75% of them are people I have a more or less deep connection with. I would not call that friendship.

    But just because this is not my closest friend since childhood does not mean this connection is worth nothing.

    It is worth a lot.

  4. In my view, the main factor that allows Digital Dunbar numbers to soar is that it doesn’t matter how people in our online groups relate to each other, which is the pathological constraint in real life. Which also partly explains why these Digital Dunbar numbers vary so much from person to person.

    I’m curious to know, JP, how you measured your Digital Dunbar number. I think my current number is around 150, funnily enough, but its still going up!

    I’m not sure I agree with Nate – if we consider the people who are both in our online and offline groups, I think the online relationship nourishes the offline relationship. Perhaps the added depth to these relationships offsets those with less depth. I like to think so!

  5. Keep the comments coming; while I originally thought the phenomenon was to do with the different transaction costs, I think I failed to do justice to some of the points that Nicole and Phil bring up, the interplay between online and offline lives. Thanks for helping me think more about it. More to follow, probably write a post in a day or two.

  6. I tend to agree with Nate.

    However, it’s not just time constraints, it’s also a matter of cognitive limits; if you have 300+ “online friends” (or “buddies”), can you really relate to each and every one of them like you do with, say, your fellow students, colleagues, neighbors, and real-world friends? (Recalling a conversation by looking up a chat log doesn’t count… )
    I think what’s usually missing in the online world are actual shared experiences – be it a school trip, a business project, a party, or simply casual encounters on the garden fence. This usually helps establish a unique identity for the respective person in the mind. (Collaborating online – e.g. on an open-source project coordinated via mailing lists – can provide some of those aspects, but not the whole range.)

    Of course there’s also convergence (e.g. people meeting in real life eventually), so it’s not a black-and-white issue. Also, modern facilities like e-mail, IM, Facebook or Twitter definitely do make it easier to keep in touch. But they cannot overcome our inherent cognitive limits.

    Just my two cents…

  7. I think the travel cost parameter is possibly a red herring.

    Many of my online friendships have moved offline when they have been with people who live in this country. While this has also applied to international friendships in some cases, that does not mean that those that have not been consumated face to face are any less strong.

    Digital communication has enhanced and crucially speeded up the non face to face contact. Pre digital “pen-friends” were far more tenuous and less enduring than their digital equivalents.

  8. The Dunbar number is actually an absolute for someone at a moment in time. Our cognitive capacity can be augmented by the ability to discover or rediscover a tie, while letting another one implicitly disappear into the background, waiting to be rediscovered. We now have more ways of refreshing the cache, and making weak ties efficiently stronger when they should be.

  9. Did you see Stephen Fry’s latest Guardian column?

    “What an irony! For what is this much-trumpeted social networking but an escape back into that world of the closed online service of 15 or 20 years ago?”

    I’d pay (a small sum) to listen to a conversation between you and him about identity ownership and social software.

  10. JP, you mention ‘weak interactions’. I think this is similar to the light social contacts that the guys at drive at with their concept of the alpha user – the person in a social group who has most light social contacts – ie the most viral person. Might be worth you chatting with Jouko Ahveneinen there?

Let me know what you think

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