According to the British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, the average human has the capacity to maintain a maximum social network of 150 individuals. This figure of 150 has since become known as Dunbar’s Number. But does Dunbar’s Number still apply to our online social networking patterns?
Blogger Gord Hotchkiss is of the belief that we may have outgrown the upper limit of 150. His argument is that the internet has not only removed the geographical barriers to forming networks, but also redefined the way we create and maintain these networks.
Hyper-connective social animals
No longer, he argues, are humans motivated to form social groups primarily by base survival instincts, but rather by a desire to share experience or common interests. We have moved from being simple hunter-gathers and evolved into hyper-connective social animals.
However, there are limits to this, and Hotchkiss refers to these common traits as Human Hardware. The easiest way to conceptualise this is that it’s that most basic, primordial wiring that helps to define the human condition – the unseen element within us all that allows us to differentiate someone who’s friendly from someone who’s hostile.
It’s this inescapable, built-in Human Hardware, Hotchkiss claims, where the desire for face-to-face communication and trust originates from. Without these elements any relationship, whether online or ‘in real life’, is really more of an acquaintanceship than a friendship and thus exempt from any Dunbar’s Number calculations.
So, what’s the end result of all this psychological pontificating? Are we, as internet-era, hyper-connective humans really able to build and maintain social groupings of over 150 individuals, or does the hard-wiring of our sub-conscious limit us to a maximum number not beyond that?
More importantly, does it really matter? The thing that strikes us as being absent from all this talk of ‘quantity’ is the far more important notion of ‘quality’. Does it really matter whether or not we are able to maintain ever larger social networks, when at the first sign of trouble we invariably run towards the same dozen or half-dozen people we feel closest to anyway? We rather think not.