Edo the Reliable

This is Your Mind on Social Networks

In Social Networks on December 30, 2010 at 1:07 am

Two weeks after Time selected Mark Zuckerberg as Man of the Year, NYT published a classy claim to relevancy: a Saturday guest op-ed by SPW’s hero, Prof. Robin Dunbar, titled “You’ve Got to Have (150) Friends“.

A day later, CNN published a story on original Nature Neuroscience research (Amygdala volume and social network size in humans).  Mashable ran the story a day later as Friend Count Linked to the Size of a Certain Body Part?, and then it came round to Time’s Healthland which titled it How to Win Friends: Have a Big Amygdala?.

But daring “body parts” references aside, none of the above websites published the image of the body part in question that was found in an appendix of the original research paper. It begs to be titled: This is Your Mind on Social Networks.

The Village People

I recall a media-shy Dunbar, with a whiff of scientific coldness and irrelevance. But a NYT op-ed is considered anointment in some circles. Like McLuhan’s “Global Village” once resonated with a TV generation, Dunbar’s “Electronic Village” may resonate with this social generation and its leaders:

Until relatively recently, almost everyone on earth lived in small, rural, densely interconnected communities, where our 150 friends all knew one another, and everyone’s 150 friends list was everyone else’s.

But the social and economic mobility of the past century has worn away at that interconnectedness. As we move around the country and across continents, we collect disparate pockets of friends, so that our list of 150 consists of a half-dozen subsets of people who barely know of one another’s existence, let alone interact.

Our ancestors knew the same people their entire lives; as we move around, though, we can lose touch with even our closest friends. Emotional closeness declines by around 15 percent a year in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that in five years someone can go from being an intimate acquaintance to the most distant outer layer of your 150 friends.

Facebook and other social networking sites allow us to keep up with friendships that would otherwise rapidly wither away. And they do something else that’s probably more important, if much less obvious: they allow us to reintegrate our networks so that, rather than having several disconnected subsets of friends, we can rebuild, albeit virtually, the kind of old rural communities where everyone knew everyone else. Welcome to the electronic village.

Click for a comparison of “Global Village” and “electronic Village” trends in Google searches.


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