Saturday, June 20, 2015

Digital friendships

I watched a TED talk this week as part of my Open University course.  This was a talk by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, whose work on friendships and social groupings in 1992 resulted in "Dunbar's number" of 148, which is the number of friendships that people can maintain.  Over time, Dunbar has revised his theory based on the impact of social media, but it is interesting to note that even today, across 400,000,000 Facebook users, the most common number of friends that people have is between 120 and 130.  After hearing this I went and checked my Facebook friends and found I have 304 friends, however some of these are acquaintances I don't interact with at all, and the actual number of people I communicate with on a fairly regular basis is around 100, slightly less than Dunbar's number.  He argues that although we can in theory have thousands of global friends on social networks, the reality is that we are only regularly interacting with the same number of people  as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did.

He talks about concentric circles of friends.  These number 5, 15, 50 and 150.  The last circle is the "Christmas card list", those people we touch base with about once a year.  The inner circle of 5 friends (and only 4 if you are in a relationship) represents about half of our social time.  When you take the first 2 circles of 15 people, this represents around three quarters of our social interactions.  Dunbar talks about the number of friendships we can maintain being based on the size of our brain, in particular the social cognition circuit that lets us understand what others are thinking.  He asks if it is possible for this part of the brain to expand during childhood, perhaps as a result of increased numbers of online friends, and concludes that this is possible, though only up to the age of 20.  In general maintaining friendships takes a huge amount of time, as you need to invest time to get emotional closeness.

There are significant differences in males and females regarding how digital media can help maintain friendships.  Women account for about 2/3 of time on Facebook.  Men maintain friendships by doing things together rather than by talking.  Women, on the other hand, maintain friendships through conversations, therefore social media can maintain close friendships in women.  The most ideal technology for this is shown to be Skype, where there is a sense of co-presence and an immediate response.

I found this module of this week's course to be fascinating.  I'm looking forward to next week which is about learning to think in a digital age, where we will consider how different ways of thinking and learning behaviour might be emerging from an immersion in digital devices. 

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