As someone who now has over 171 professional "connections" in my LinkedIn Profile, 198 "friends" on Orkut, many more non-intersecting friends and acquaintances on Tribe.Net, LiveJournal, and other social networking services, as well as a plethora of correspondents that I only interact with via email, I am trying reconcile a mismatch between my connections and my own Dunbar Number.
How do I maintain meaningful relationships with over 300 people?
Venture Capitalist Jeff Nolan relates similar concerns:
"It strikes me that the social networking theory holds that the more volume you have, the bigger your network will become by introducing degrees of separation roughly along the lines of Metcalfe's Law. I disagree, human networks do not grow in value by multiplying, but rather by reduction. For me, it's the quality of relationships that enhances my professional and personal life, not the sheer numbers."
Ultimately social networking services -- be it LinkedIn, Tribe.Net, Orkut, or LiveJournal -- are making the problem worse, not solving it. Any engineer or information theorist can tell you that a system that only has amplifiers will be out of balance, and that you need attenuators in the system as well. Our current breed of social networking services have focused on amplifying our contacts not only because it serves us, but because it serves them. The more contacts that you make, the more people they potentially have in their service. However, in the long run this is unsustainable -- a social networking service also has to be useful -- merely amplifying your contacts isn't enough.
Thus the problem becomes not just one unique to me, where my friends network is overextended, but rather one that's endemic to the current generation of social networking services. In order to solve it we need to look at the traditional cultural answers to the problem, compare them to technical solutions, both current and to-be-invented, and then see how a new generation of social networking services can be designed that molds the two ideas together into a more cohesive whole.
I offer here the beginning of that discussion.
The Cultural Strategies
The problem of overextended social networks are not new with the Internet generation. Many professions require maintaining a large base of relationships and have done so for hundreds of years, among them: politicians, salespeople, public company CEOs, and even professions that you might not think of requiring these skills such as family doctors. The Dunbar Number of 150 may be a kind of species-wide average limit, it is not an individual limit -- thus my guess is that people with an innate talent for maintaining more relationships are attracted to these professions. But even with innate talent those who follow these professions can be overwhelmed, and each have found different cultural strategies for managing larger numbers of relationships.
Cultural Strategy - Spending More Time: Some people just spend a lot more time keeping up with their connections. Politicians and salespeople are classic examples of professions that require significant schmoozing time in order to keep trusted connections together.
How does someone like a member of the US House of Representatives manage their relationships? In no way can they even come close to having a relationship with all the 645,952 people they represent. They would, however, at least have to keep up at some level with the other 435 House members, their own staff, key members of the staff of other House members, as well as key politicians and contacts back home. From what I've read, successful politicians spend most of their days just meeting with people, and have staff dedicated to "tickling" -- keeping track of constituents, schedules, issues, etc. and reminding the politician before each meeting of the essentials they need to know.
The cost of this strategy is twofold -- the time spent managing relationships can't be spent elsewhere, and the quantity of relationships lowers the quality of those relationships. For instance, my experience with most politicians and many salesperson is that I will be forgotten as soon as I leave the room.
Cultural Strategy - Changing the Standard: There are different cultural standards in each profession as to what is an acceptable relationship. Thus some people chooose a profession that manages relationships in different ways. Doctors are a good example of socializers who fit into this category.
Your family doctor has a similar problem to that of politicians -- too many people to keep track of. Yet a good family practitioner can see you and look beyond just today's symptoms. Thus because of an ongoing relationship with you he can be a better doctor.
The way the doctor does this is through cultural and professional limits. Because of the authority, status and title granted to doctors, patients tend to defer to them. There is not an expectation that the relationship is equal. This allows the doctor to have a 'shallower' relationship with the patient that is still acceptable.
Still, even this level of serial, shallow socialization can be excessive for many people. A Radiologist acquaintance of mine told me the reason why she ended up in her specialty was that she just couldn't handle the ongoing patient relationships required by other specialities -- instead, she now looks at one set of images at a time, performs a diagnosis, and doesn't have to retain any relationship to move on to the next patient.
There are also problems with changing your socialization standards. Unless it is culturally understood, or your standard is reciprocated by others, it can make you appear shallow and not trustworthy. I've seen this when someone moves from one profession to another, say a salesperson to a manager -- styles of relationships that were acceptable among salesperson and between salespeople and customers are not quite as acceptable as those between managers and their staff. Another example is when someone moves from the East Coast to the West Coast, where the usefulness of casual alumni connections is significantly less valued, but those casual connections are unable to understand the change in standards.
Cultural Strategy - Prioritization: Perhaps a more common cultural strategy for managing excessive relationships is prioritization. I could prioritize my relationships and focus only on the 100+ or so that might be the most useful to me.
There are two problems with prioritizing. First, analyses of social networks show that it is often the weak and most unrelated links that can be the most important. Thus any attempt to triage may cut off some of these weak ties because I thought that the links might not be "useful".
Secondly, how do you tell someone "I'm sorry, but I'm overly Dunbarred, so I have removed you from my list." Rejection is painful (as MRI brain studies have actually shown), so I risk offending people forever by excluding them today.
The Technological Solutions
One of the great hopes of social networking services is to improve the ways that we interact with other people, particularly those that we know at a distance -- the "weak links". Right now, these services are part of the problem because they offer out-of-balance social systems. However, they can also be part of the solution; science-fiction writers and social software designers alike are starting to look at these issues and offer new solutions that would not have been possible before the advent of widespread software communication systems.
Technological Solution - Augmentation: I recently read in Geodesica: Ascent, a new science fiction novel by Sean Williams and Shane Dix, a futurist example of augmentation as a method of maintaining extended social networks.
In Geodesica: Ascent the protagonist, "Melilah" is a politician in the distant future. She has her own problems with the Dunbar Number, and solves it with her own personalized social networking service:
Two things she had learned from her political career were that society depended on interpersonal relationship networks, and that everything could turn on a simple misidentification. In her fifties she had set about ensuring that her memory remained in good working order in order to avoid the latter. Anthropologists had known since the twentieth century that people were born with a ceiling on their social groups. Once Melilah exceeded the Dunbar and Hill number of 150, and rapidly acquiring still more associates, it became progressively harder to keep track of everyone she had to know. As she passed her hundredth birthday, it became only worse. Some of her contemporaries option for cortical grafts and other memory prosthetics. She, motivated by a gut-level -- some would say irrational -- desire to keep her body as free of technology as possible, opted for other means.
She had found that using a name once every two months was enough to keep her memory fresh. Any longer than that between reminders, and the associations faded, rendering recall unreliable. So she programmed a complete list of her occasional acquaintances and enemies into a database and programmed it to cycle through them ever sixty days, shuffling the order each time.
A hundred years on, she was still in the habit of skimming fifty or so names a day, just to keep on the ball. By flicking through the images, voice files, place names, and more obtuse clues, she felt confident of recognizing any of the several thousand people more or less likely to interact with her at any point in the near future. The list had grown and shrunk down over the years, and many people had dropped off it entirely because of death or distance. Sometimes she added names to the list only to be surprised that they had been on it once before, decades ago, and she had forgotten them completely. That only reinforced the need for the list and the effort to keep it fresh in her mind.
I'm not sure that the Dunbar Number problem is solely one of "recognition", as illustrated by Williams and Dix. However, I think this is a great example of seeing how a traditional cultural solution to network overextension (namely, "Spending More Time") can be better applied by Social Software. In this example Melilah's software automates the "ticklers" that politicians use.
Already at least one social networking service has adopted a somewhat similar idea. Spoke has a "Keep In Touch" setting. The Spoke client software will watch your Outlook mailbox and addressbook to see how often you contact various people, and if you don't email them or modify your address book entry for them periodically, will remind you that you should contact them.
I've never used Spoke's "Keep In Touch" feature -- largely for privacy reasons (I was stung by a Zero Degrees Outlook extension), but also because Spoke seemed to be oriented toward salespeople and thus emphasized growing the network. My problem is not growing my network, but managing the network I already have more effectively. But I may have to take another look at Spoke. So, it doesn't quite offer the same solution that Melilah used in the far-future, but it's still a start upon that path.
Conclusions and Questions
I'm not certain that Spoke's "Keep In Touch" feature, or Melilah's social recognition reminder service are the full solution to the "Dunbar Triage" problem. However, they do at least offer a few examples of people looking at the problems, and how social software can help solve them.
As I've outlined here there are at least three traditional methods that we've used to manage Dunbar Triage prior to advent of social networking services: spending more time, changing standards, and prioritization. The technological solutions that I've offered up as an example concentrates upon the first of those cultural solutions, but it is by no means a conclusive statement on the issue.
How could next-generation social networking services improve upon the ideas of changing standards or prioritization? Could simple categorization help improve expectations for attention levels that various associates receive from you? Are there ways that social networking services, acting as an intermediary, could better manage disappointment-inducing events, such as a decision to spend less attention on an associate?
More so, could social software offer solutions that aren't even being considered right now? For example, many Cyberpunk novels have suggested the ideas of avatars that can collect information for you on the 'net while your attention is elsewhere. Could these avatars likewise maintain more distant social networks for you, without your full attention? Would that function even be desirable?
Some solutions are not technological -- what new skills and changes to practices, etiquette and ethics are required for our ever expanding network of relationships? Or as Adina asks: "Who will offer us a 21st century, internet-augmented take on Dale Carnegie and Emily Post?"
As with any problem in the developing technical world, the first step is to define the problem and to consider possible solutions. Here's the start: social networks can become too large, and many social networking services are causing the problem rather than solving it.
What's your solution?
Some other posts about the Dunbar Number and group size issues: