This is an interesting theory, and has proven to be true in many cases. Here is the technical explanation from the Wikipedia page: Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people […]
This is an interesting theory, and has proven to be true in many cases. Here is the technical explanation from the Wikipedia page: Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologistRobin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. Dunbar explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.
So, this begs the question…is this still true today, given our hyper-connected lives? How does Social Media play into this theory? Are we still limited to this number of relationships that one would consider “maintainable”?
In my opinion, this is still very true today, and in fact, it may be more true than ever. Because of social media, we are less connected with people. We are “friends” with many people, and connected to people they are connected to as well. But the reality is that we don’t know those people at all. Many people are running a highlight reel of their lives on their social accounts, meanwhile they are deep in debt, struggling to get by, and their lives are devoid of true meaningful relationships. In a quest to gain the most followers, we broadcast things out into the ether of social media to attract attention. None of this leads to solidifying good, solid relationships with people you are going to call up for dinner any time soon. What appears to be a much larger group of friends than the Dunbar number would suggest is possible to handle, we have never been more digitally connected and yet so alone and separated from the rest of the world.
I am in a unique position in my life to have a huge number of people I come into contact with on a regular basis. Being in sales, I meet new people all the time, and forge an introductory relationship with them. In most cases, it is cordial and friendly, and part of my job. I do not necessarily consider most of them close friends, but rather transitory people in my life. I work to maintain my real friendships, and make the effort to reach out to people and talk on the phone on occasion. I want to hear their voices and talk through the updates on their lives. In some cases, a quick text message can suffice, but it is so much more emotionally fulfilling to spend time with someone or at least talk on the phone with them.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about starting my own book club with some friends for this exact reason. I wrote a letter to each of the invitees, explaining that I wanted to schedule a monthly deep conversation session , part of which would focus on discussing the book of choice that month. It has proven to be a great investment of time and energy, and we have all gotten a lot out of it. We are on our third year as of January 2020, and instead of slowing down, we are looking to add more people to enhance what we have started. It appears I am not alone in my quest for connection at a deeper level.
I have some real concerns for the generations behind me, and their lack of perspective on technology in our lives. I was fortunate to grow up in a time where I didn’t have the internet, and Amazon Prime and Alexa. As a kid, I played outside for hours on end, my only rule really was to be home by the time the streetlights came on. As I aged, technology came along that brought conveniences to the world that we had never known. By the time I was in my twenties, technologies such as pagers and big cell phones with external batteries the size of a toaster were becoming commonplace. And then Facebook took the world by storm, and we have never been the same since. I resisted for longer than many, but eventually gave in to the convenience of keeping tabs on family and friends simply by logging in and scanning through posts and updates. Today, the whole world lives vicariously through their phones and their social media accounts, and they have no idea how to forge and maintain real relationships.
By lacking a frame of reference of what things were like before all of this technology, it has to be far more difficult for younger generations to make friends, keep friends, interview well, and many other basic human interactions. We as humans are hard-wired for connection, group acceptance, and finding our place in the circle. This is one of the reasons I speak on this topic, as I have had the luxury of seeing life before technology and social media, as well as life after. I feel that my generation has a better understanding of how to connect with people, simply because I had to earlier in my life. It was part of the deal for everyone, and the world was “smaller” then. Most people never really came close to a Dunbar number in their circle of friends, but rather had family and a small number of friends and that was it.
These relationships weren’t perfect, but in some cases, they were real; they were deep and connected. According to this Vox.com article, about thirty percent of Millennials report themselves as “lonely, and having no close friends. I am sure they have more “friends” and followers on social media than I do, but I don’t feel this way at all. I have friends that I have know since age 18, and am still in close contact with them today. I’ve been to their weddings, helped more than one through divorces, and have watched their kids grow up as “uncle Darrin”.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to put the phone down once in a while. Remember that you are walking the same planet as 7 billion others, maybe you should take some time and effort to get to really know a few of them. Get past the shiny exterior and the highlight reel on social media, and really learn about what makes them tick, where they come from, and where they’d like to get to. I promise it will be worth your time and effort; your heart and your soul with thank me later.