Hyper-connected, or Stretched Too Thin

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.

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Comments

  1. Mark W Schaefer says:

    This is actually a nice companion piece to a post I wrote today on getting MORE conntected!  We seem to think in the same circles any way … http://bit.ly/ce4nxu

  2. Ike,
    We can never hold ourselves accountable for actions that require two parties. At least, that is the way my grandmother put it on one of the rare occasions we talk. She’s much wiser than both of us, I imagine.
    Sparing the details of the complexity of this relationship, the short version of the story is best summed up in a conversation a few years ago as I’d always begin every call with an apology for not connecting more often. Finally, she laughed at me.
    “Richard,” she said. “I could have easily called you too. So lets skip the apologies going forward and be grateful for all those times we connect.”
    Best,
    Rich

  3. You are right in that your friend’s grief would likely not have been less if you had been there for him sooner, just different.  It may be that the best place for you to be for him is here for him now, that the dust is beginning to settle.

    I think the number of connections you make is less important than the quality.  It is obvious, even though you initially missed your friend’s sad news, that you have a quality relationship.  Being his friend through the undoubtedly rough road he still has ahead is worth more than being there “in line” (so to speak) to comfort him when it happened.

Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ike Pigott, Ike Pigott. Ike Pigott said: Are we Hyper-connected, or Stretched Too Thin ? | http://ike4.me/o80 […]

  2. Ike Pigott says:

    Are we stretched too thin? Or is it a problem at all? http://ike4.me/o80

  3. Hyper-connected, or Stretched Too Thin – http://bit.ly/cM8vjk (via @ikepigott)

  4. Carrie Bond says:

    RT @markwschaefer: Hyper-connected, or Stretched Too Thin – http://bit.ly/cM8vjk (via @ikepigott)

  5. Glenn Taylor says:

    RT @markwschaefer: Hyper-connected, or Stretched Too Thin – http://bit.ly/cM8vjk (via @ikepigott)

  6. Friend @ikepigott has a lovely essay on the Curse of Dunbar's Number. http://bit.ly/c3dApx

  7. Jenniferwah says:

    I like this. RT @allanjenkins: Friend @ikepigott has a lovely essay on the Curse of Dunbar's Number. http://bit.ly/c3dApx

  8. arikhanson says:

    Interesting–and horribly sad–story from @ikepigott about being hyper-connetedness vs. stretched to thin: http://bit.ly/a7PWgu

  9. RT @arikhanson: Interesting–and horribly sad–story from @ikepigott about hyper-connetedness vs. stretched to thin: http://bit.ly/a7PWgu

  10. Spread thin? Gripping must-read article about this connected life by @ikepigott HT @arikhanson http://bit.ly/a7PWgu

  11. RT @marciamarcia: Spread thin? Gripping must-read article about this connected life by @ikepigott HT @arikhanson http://bit.ly/a7PWgu

  12. RT @ikepigott: Hyper-connected, or Stretched Too Thin http://bit.ly/dd993Q – absolutely an issue. ~LMP

  13. An oldie, but goodie. RT @ikepigott: Hyper-connected, or Stretched Too Thin http://bit.ly/dd993Q