At some point later this year, Facebook will connect one in every seven people on the planet. When it passes the billion user mark – and really it is a question of when, not if – it will inevitably be accompanied by the common lament of the social media critic: social networks degrade the idea of friendship. It’s absurd, they argue, to be “friends” with thousands of people – and an alarming sign of shallow times.
It’s a critique backed by several studies suggesting that it’s only possible to maintain meaningful social relationships with a relatively small number of people. A maximum of around 150 is often cited: a figure is known as “Dunbar’s number” after the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, whose work first proposed such a limit.
Dunbar’s argument, first set out in 1992, was based on the limited capacity of the human brain’s neocortex – the part of the brain responsible for conscious thought, sensory perception and language, amongst others. More recent studies of the “economy of attention” within social media services like Twitter suggest his analysis also holds true in a digital context.
Here, however, is where I diverge from the anti-Facebook brigade. For it seems to me that the real lesson to be taken from work like Dunbar’s is precisely the opposite of most critiques of social media: that, rather than wasting time decrying the insubstantiality of our online relationships with near-strangers, by far the most important question is how digital technologies interact with the small number of truly significant relationships in our lives.
This is what you might call an “inner network” effect. Network effects, ordinarily, describe a geometric relationship between the size and the value of a collective. The network with the most content is the most useful one, and so bigger networks tend to grow ever larger, whether they connect people (like Facebook or Twitter) or offer products and services (like Amazon, eBay and Craigslist).
Within this trend, however, runs a contrary need: for ease and security of contact with a select group. It was precisely this “inner network” that Google tried to tap into with its recently revamped social network Google Plus, which has the ability to categorise friends and relationships into different “circles”. The jury is still out on whether Google can ever hope to match Facebook’s scale. But the concept of an inner network has already proved its popularity through the single most popular form of social networking in the modern world: the humble text message.
Even Facebook’s millions pale into insignificance compared to the almost six billion mobile phone accounts active globally. In America, according to research by Nielsen, the average teenager now sends and receives over 3,300 text messages each month: more than six messages for every single waking hour of every single day, or one every ten minutes.
This not only puts all other forms of communication in the shade. It also, in 2012, begs the central question of why a digital exchange with all the sophistication of a smoke signal is so astonishingly popular compared to the cutting edge of online culture.
Brevity, convenience and control all play their part. Above all, though, there’s the value of exclusive access. Knowing someone’s personal mobile phone number is far more precious and personal a form of contact than a Facebook page, email address or Twitter handle. Out of those thousands of text messages, moreover, the vast majority involve a tiny handful of people: close friends, family, colleagues. This is the inner network of someone’s life. And it is the perpetual, personal availability of these people – not millions of strangers and thousands of half-friends online – that most defines the social communications revolution of the last few decades.