Last week, an acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook that he had just run his first 10 K. He also included a photo of the face of his Apple Watch showing his time.
Inevitably, snarkiness ensued in the comments section.
There were a few genuine messages of congratulations, but there was more virtual alpha headbutting along the lines of “that’s the best you could do?”
Finally, the original poster did a follow-up post saying (and I paraphrase liberally), “Hey, relax! I’m not looking for attaboys or coaching advice. I just wanted to let you know I ran 10 km, and I’m kinda proud of myself. It was important to me.”
This points out something we don’t often realize about our virtual social networks: They just don’t operate in the same way they do in the real world. And there are reasons why they don’t.
In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar was spending a lot of time hanging around monkeys. And he noticed something: They groom each other. A lot. In fact, they spend a huge chunk of their day grooming each other.
Intrigued, he started correlating brain size with social behavior. He found that primates in particular have some pretty impressive social coordination machinery locked up there in their noggins. Humans, for instance, seem to be able to juggle about 150 reasonably active social connections. This is now called Dunbar’s Number, which has become a pseudoscience trope — an intellectual tidbit we throw out to sound erudite.
Proof that we really don’t understand Dunbar’s original insight is to see what’s happened to his number, now updated for the social media age. For example, according to Brandwatch, the average number of Facebook friends is 338. That would be more than twice Dunbar’s Number. And so, predictably, there are those who say Dunbar’s Number is no longer valid. We can now handle much bigger friend networks thanks to social media.
But we can’t. And my example at the top of this post shows that.
Maintaining a friendship requires cognitive effort. There is a big difference between a Facebook “friend” and a true friend. True friends will pick lice out of your fur — or they would, if they were monkeys. Facebook Friends feel they’re entitled to belittle your 10K run. See the difference?
Let’s go back to Robin’s Dunbar’s original thesis. Dunbar actually mentioned many numbers (all are approximations):
— Five “intimate” friends. This is your support group — the people who know you best.
— 15 “sympathetic” friends whom you can confide in.
— 50 “close” friends. You may not see them all the time, but if you were having a milestone birthday party, they’d be on your guest list.
— Now we have the 150 “friends.” If you ran into them on the street, you’d probably suggest a cup of coffee (or, in my case, a beer) for a chance to catch up.
— The next circle out is 500 “acquaintances.” You probably know just the briefest of back stories about them — like how you know them.
— Finally, we have 1,500 as our cognitive limit. On a good day, we may remember their name if we see them.
Here’s a quick and clever thought exercise to sort your network into one of these groups (this courtesy of my daughter Lauren — I give credit where credit is due). Imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “How are you doing?”
How you answer this question will depend on which group the questioner falls into. The biggest group of 1,500 probably won’t ask. They don’t care. The group of 500 acquaintances will get a standard “Fine” in response. There will be no follow-up. The 150 will get a little more — a few details of a big event or life development if relevant. The 50 “close friends” will get slightly more honesty. Perhaps you’ll be willing to guardedly open up some sensitive areas. The 15 “sympathetic friends” are a safe zone. You’ll feel like you can open up completely. And the five “intimate friends” don’t have to ask. They know how you’re doing.
I’ve talked before about strong ties and weak ties in our social networks. Strong ties are built through shared experiences and understanding. You really have to know someone to have a strong tie with them. They are the ties that bind the first two of Dunbar’s circles.
As we move to the third circle, the “close friends,” we’re moving into the transition zone between strong ties and weak ties. From there on, it’s all weak ties. If you need a job or a recommendation of a good plumber, you’d reach out. Otherwise, you have little in common.
The stronger the tie, the more effort it takes to maintain it. These are the cognitive limits that Dunbar was talking about. You have to remember all those back stories, those things they love and hate, what motivates them, what makes them sad. It takes time to learn all those things. And it takes a frequency of connection to keep up with them as they change. We are not static creatures — as has been shown especially in the last year.
This is the problem with social media. When we post something, we generally don’t post just for our intimate friends, or our sympathetic friends. We post it across our whole network, bound with both strong and weak ties. We have lost the common social understanding that keeps us sane in the real world.
For my 10K runner, those in their closest circles would have responded appropriately. But most of those who did comment, the ones who had no strong ties to the poster, didn’t know the 10K was a big deal.
Facebook does have some tools for limited posts to selected groups, but almost none of us use them or maintain them. We don’t have the time.
This is where Dunbar’s insight on our social capabilities breaks down when it comes to social media. In the real world, multiple factors — including physical proximity, shared circumstances and time spent with each other — naturally keep our network sorted into the right categories.
But these factor don’t apply in social media. We broadcast out to all circles at once. And those circles, in turn, feel entitled by the false intimacy of social media to respond without the context needed to do so appropriately.
Our current circumstances are exacerbating this problem. In normal times, we might not be posting as much as we currently are on social media. But for many of us, Facebook might be all we’ve got. We just have to realize that if we’re depending on it for social affirmation, this virtual world doesn’t play by the same rules as the physical one.