I’ve heard grumbles from many friends about facebook. Indeed, there’s something amiss about this megalithic inbox replacement social utility that I have had difficulty diagnosing until recently. I’ve found a few articles on the interwebs that I take to be clues.
First, Dunbar’s Number is a network theorem that states that individuals can sustain meaningful relationships with 148 people. Beyond that point, network salience becomes much too difficult to sustain strong ties among nodes in the network. Some neurologists and primatologists postulate that our threshold for juggling social connections is directly related to the size of our neocortex – which is bigger in women. I digress.
The other clue is my continued rumination about Jyri Engeström’s great post from back in the day about object centered sociality, and the subsequent research I did about Scandinavian Activity Theory as it relates to the sociology of information systems.
People don’t just connect to each other, they connect through a shared object that resonates with them both. Shared objects are the reason why people affiliate with specific others and not just anyone.
Whatever the case, beyond this Dunbar’s Number threshold, people become disoriented in conversation – they literally can no longer relate to the object that brought about the conversation in the first place. The very exchanges of conversation, the “likes”, the LOLs, the emoticons, only serve to further distance us from the object because more and more participants in the ‘conversation’ are from outside of the user’s immediate circle of friends.
Quite often, I have a hard time accepting that strangers (whose senses of humor I don’t know) could possibly be talking about the same thing in the same way in which I’m talking to my friends. Homophily gives us tunnel vision sometimes.
How many people an individual communicates with probably exists somewhere between their total network size and their support network. Some research by Gueorgi Kossinets and Duncan Watts observing all email communication at a university shows that the number of ongoing contacts hovers somewhere between 10 and 20 over a 30 day period.
The average facebook user has 130 friends which is too close to Dunbar for comfort. This helps explain why facebook is pushing Pages so hard. FB Pages can be sponsored.
So, it makes sense that I’m disoriented by the size of our networks on facebook. The feeling that I increasingly can’t relate to what’s happening around me is akin to boredom.
If objects are what we talk about with people, then is the number of objects we can simultaneously socialize around also 148? I would hypothesize: probably. Actor Network Theory talks about the the interoperability of objects and people in complex networks, and in my experience, this is true. This is why memes like David After Dentist are so resonant in our internet culture: they provide the long strands that connect geographically disparate and socially removed circles of friends. These joke memes garner tens of millions of views (DAD has 62,436,953). Who watches the video? Probably half a million circles of friends.
If half a million people, reaching out to their immediate friends will result in 20% of the country getting touched, then facebook may be the most effective free delivery system ever.
But what can be delivered effectively online? Things like “David After Dentist,” I assume – specifically, portable and permalinked objects that have a temperament which is immediately understood: “this is funny”, “this is gross” , “this is beautiful.”
This also makes sense when looking at the array of successful “defined-temperament” community websites; sites like Wonkette.com or TMZ.com or CollegeHumor.com. These can maintain conversation threads of thousands because the temperament is constant: it’s always a story of “conservatives are nuts” or “celebrities are nuts” or “laugh at this guy getting kicked in the nuts.”
Objects can connect more people than people can.
Itsasickness keeps users oriented toward the objects of obsession. The objects themselves exist in a worldview temperament that is constantly reiterated all over the site. Once again, for good measure: “This is sick” = your sickness makes you extraordinary.