The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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The digital scholar

1.8 Loose connections

Having made mention of Dunbar’s numbers this activity introduces them more fully.

Activity 2 Numbers

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Watch this short video of Robin Dunbar explaining what is meant by Dunbar’s number.

Skip transcript: Dunbar's number

Transcript: Dunbar's number

Announcer The world is thinking.
Robin Dunbar
It's become a kind of competition to see how many friends you can have on your Facebook. So it's not uncommon for some people to claim 300, 500 friends, even 1,000 actually. I suggest that if you do actually claim that, probably you don't know most of these people. They're just voyeurs into your life and you could probably, with advantage, do without some of them. And the question is, why is that the case?
The simple answer is Dunbar's number. And I thank whoever created that acronym-- I have no idea who did it. It just appeared out of the blue on the internet-- wonderful thing, the internet-- and it sort of took off. But there we are.
And that number is about 150. There's a lot of variation around that, to be fair. And I hesitate to say where that variation lies. Some of it is due to gender differences, and I won't tell you which way it goes for fear of offending half the audience.
But why is it limited at 150? The answer is twofold. Partly it's a cognitive challenge just to keep track of more people. I'll say a bit more about that in a minute. The other side of it is it's just a time-budgeting problem. You just don't have time in everyday life to invest in each of those people to the extent where you can have a real relationship with them.
We've come to see what-- actually, we've learned two things out of all this work we've been doing over the last maybe five years on these kind of things.
One is we have no idea what relationships are. Probably some of you can tell us. We certainly don't know. And we've come to a conclusion that none of the kind of grand spectrum of social psychology and so on, which has spent a lot of time looking at this, actually know, either.
And we think it's probably because friendships in this sense, relationships in general are emotional things. So we know what we mean by a relationship when we see it. So if you see two people in a relationship or when you have a relationship, you know you have one. But we can't kind of verbalise it, we can't put it into words to say what it is.
And I think actually, that's why poets get such recognition by us generally because they just have that skill to be able to put into words these kind of, if you like, right brain emotional feelings which we find very difficult to actually express. So we can't kind of get it up into our conscious mind and our language left side of the brains to say something about the quality of the relationship we have. So we have no way of comparing relationships in the end.
That's a real problem from our point of view, because we can't really compare quality of relationship against the outcome-- do certain kinds of relationships last longer and so on? We can't even do it between different species. So lots and lots of species have monogamous pair-bonded mating systems, but we don't know how they compare or whether they're similar to our pair-bonded romantic relationships and so on.
OK. So that kind of cognitive side of it is sort of offset by the fact that you have to invest in relationships, you have to do stuff with people in order to build a relationship with them. And it seems as though the amount of time you need to invest is kind of proportional to the quality of the relationship, or should I say the quality of the relationship is proportional to the amount of time you spend doing stuff with people.
So if you look at the pattern of your relationships in this 150, what you'll find is that it actually consists of a series of layers a bit like the ripples on a pond.
If you drop a pebble in the pond, if you're the pebble, you can imagine the ripples going out are the layers of your relationships. And as you go out, you include more people but you're including relationships at a lower quality. And that ties up very closely with the amount of time you spend with those people.
So the amount of time you spend with this inner core of about five-- that's another curious feature of it is the layers scale in a very, very consistent pattern so that they occur at five, 15, 50, 150, and we know out beyond that there's a 500 and a 1,500.
And I might tell you, as we're in a hall of the arts here-- borrow that bit for the moment-- Plato got the next number out. He said the ideal democracy size is 5,300. That was 350 BC. We've learned nothing.
End transcript: Dunbar's number
Dunbar's number
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How does this compare with your own experience? There has been some research that shows Dunbar’s numbers hold true online also (Konnikova, 2014). It is, however, easier to maintain a larger network of loose associations online. Consider how many online connections you have, and which of these you would fully classify as friends.

Make some notes or post on your blog about this.

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The implication of Dunbar research is often that face-to-face connections are more ‘real’ or meaningful in some sense. Increasingly scholars are finding meaningful connections online, particularly if they are working alone in a subject within their own institution. A good example of this is the Virtually Connecting group that have arranged for virtual participation in conferences (and hangouts) allowing people who may be excluded from participating to feel part of the event. You can get a feel for this type of community by looking at some of their videos on YouTube [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


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