British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized that there is a limit to the number of individuals one can maintain stable social relationships with in a group setting. The number lies between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar postulates that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex* size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” And I believe there is truth in this figure, though I go so far as to say that a mean group size of 150 is too large even when broken down into a minimum of three subsets.

Little of the social world has relied on Dunbar’s number until very recently (the past 3 years or so). As platforms such as Friendster (remember Friendster? I met my wife on it!), Bebo, Myspace, and Facebook had become ingrained in our social consciousness, we’ve begun to realise that an infinite number of acquaintances is not a good thing (even Facebook maxes out at 5,000). But more than that, knowing and trying to keep up with too many individuals and groups is actually detrimental to an individual’s sense of personality and organisation.

A few smaller organisations have cottoned-on to this notion as of late. Take the ‘Path’ social network which only allows groups of 50 friends at a time for example. “Path allows you to capture your life’s most personal moments and share them with the 50 close friends and family in your life who matter most,” writes founder Dave Morin. “The idea … enables trust and storytelling amongst close friends and family.”

While the concept behind the network is sound (based on Dunbar’s number) I feel that it puts an individual in a socially uncomfortable system (if you want to add another friend and you already have 50, you must unfriend someone who is then notified). Few individuals would like to be put in such a situation, hence I feel the popularity of such a platform is limited.

Just weeks ago Google Plus has been introduced. Based on this idea of controlling circles of friends and acquaintances, Google Plus is taking their social network to new heights. It’s no coincidence that the central hub of this platform relies heavily on organising your online life into simple circles with few notifications to others and private lists of people. Personally, I spend several hours a week curating my online connections into bite size groups and do not consider myself in any way an extreme case. Although these groups may be virtual, my online interactions with these individuals shape the way in which I scrutinize my offline relationships. And this is where the full impact of this topic comes to form. Just as we see our collective attention spans shortening, due to the likes of Tweets and status updates, so too are we evolving new methods of dividing up our relationships. I strongly feel that as the internet becomes more ingrained within the constructs of our society, we will be testing the limits of how we interact with each other, first on a social basis, then a political one. The question arises: once we control the number and order of our personal relationships via smaller and smaller groups, will we then apply these same rules to include, say socio-economic variables? Will the internet spawn the next generation of politics? And how far will our virtual lives take our physical ones based on the networks in which they operate?

* The neocortex ratio of a species is the ratio of the size of the neocortex to the rest of the brain. A high neocortex ratio is thought to correlate with a number of social variables such as group size and the complexity of social mating behaviours.


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