An acquaintance of mine lost a child a few weeks back, and I am just now finding out about it.
That makes me sad. Twice.
Once because of his loss, because it was completely unexpected.
And to a far lesser degree, once because I was so out-of-the-loop I didn’t catch it.
But why am I feeling guilty about it? There’s nothing I could have done, and there’s nothing I could have added in support that his family wasn’t already getting from others, who are even closer to him.
Should I have been paying more attention?
The Curse of Dunbar
Anytime we start talking about online connections, the mythical Dunbar Number pops up, which is supposedly a limit to our human relations and connections. The self-proclaimed experts and gurus of social networking often cite the number as 150. And they often cite it incorrectly.
Robin Dunbar is the anthropologist who first acknowledged the issue. The Dunbar Number has never been fixed, even though Dunbar himself proffered the 150 estimate. His thesis is the size of the neocortex is the determining factor in how connected we can be. (No, that doesn’t mean that good networkers have bigger brains and are smarter, either.) The part that often gets misinterpreted is the piece about the connections. It’s not that you can only truly “know” 150 people… it’s that you can only “know” 150 people who also know how they each relate to one another.
That is a very different proposition, because it entails all the connections and relationships of the other people in your tribe.
Old School Thinking
Dunbar himself wasn’t trying to establish “the Number,” as he was trying to establish a protocol for figuring out if there was a Number, and if it was related to neocortical size. He certainly wasn’t worried about whether there was a theoretical limit to the number of friends you could have on Facebook and Twitter simultaneously.
Actually, there are some easy ways to objectively find out what that number might be, or at least a range. Go back to school.
The Dunbar hypothesis is based on what he terms a “stable inter-personal relationship.” So let’s map out what one of those would be, and what effect that would have on personal satisfaction.
Let’s also assume we could start doing studies on student happiness at high schools, and map them according to the size of the graduating class. (Or even the entire high school, 9th-12th grades, if they are that tightly-knit.)
If the personal satisfaction scores start to drop after the class size goes over 180, or 210, or some other number, then you have an objective measure. That is, if you buy that personal happiness is most tied to those factors.
I graduated with 390 other people. We didn’t all know each other, not even close. And the class right behind me had over 500. I don’t think there was just “one community” that came out of that group. But if we whittle it down, we could figure out what size makes for those stable inter-personal relationships Dunbar mentioned.
The Danger of Over-Connectedness
There are distinct advantages to being connected, even loosely, with more people than that. In my previous life as a television reporter, it wasn’t uncommon to meet several new people a day in the process of gathering the news. Add that up over 200 working days, and you get a few hundred easy. It’s good to “know of” a lot of people, even if you don’t “know” them.
The danger enters when you start treating those connections as though they were analogues to the face-to-face communities. They can’t be, and they will never be.
My friend who lost his child – I knew him in college, and we’ve run into each other randomly over the years. Never forgot his name, he never forgot mine. And we could always jump into a conversation without having missed a beat. Yet I am not there for his daily life, and he isn’t there for mine. And that’s okay too.
I missed his tragedy, because life happened and his news was just a drop in the river of pixels on my screen. I feel bad that I missed it, but without these connections I would not have known about it at all. And maybe that is something.