Rethinking the social network

To mark the publication of my new book and the School of Life Live tour, here’s another one of the columns I write for the BBC’s international site, BBC Future – exploring some new ideas around what the future may hold for social networks.

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 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: and 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 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.

At a recent conference, I listened to an Indian entrepreneur talking about the importance of mobile phones in his country, which with around 900 million active accounts is exceeded only by China’s one billion. The totals involved are staggering. Yet mobile communications are revolutionary in a country like India, he argued, precisely because they permit people to pull each other individually out of the crowd, not because they allow them to join it.

The most important features of a mobile phone in nations like India aren’t internet access, cameras, music, storage or email; they’re the practical necessities of good battery life and an integrated flashlight, for when both mains power and light are in short supply. Similarly, from traders in flower markets to businessmen keeping in touch with distant relatives, what matters most of all in communications terms is being able to get hold of the small number of people closest to you, personally and professionally; and ensuring that your interactions with them are reliable, exclusive, unobtrusive and secure. The rest – Facebook and the wonders of the world wide web included – is largely detail.

Consider this: why is it so many of us find it so stressful to be without our mobile phones, even for a short time? To answer this question accurately, it’s worth posing a related, if more macabre, query: why is a fully charged mobile phone the item people most request to have buried alongside them in a coffin?

The answer in the second case is that they desperately want to be able to make a phone call or send a message at what might just be their time of greatest need. Similarly, our great attachment to mobile devices in daily life isn’t about random messages from people we don’t care about – it’s because we want to be able to make or to take that crucial call, the as-yet-unknown interaction with someone close to us that might signify marvellous or appalling news.

Technology’s greatest claim on us, here – and it is a claim that is increasingly making mobile phones more like an extension of our minds and bodies than a mere tool – is its promise of constant connection to our innermost network.

It’s dangerously easy simply to gawp and grimace at the sheer scale of the networks connecting us. The numbers are staggering, and offer a powerful index of how much and how fast our world is changing. But we mustn’t overlook the great lesson to be drawn from work like Dunbar’s: the weight of a special few will always outweigh the many, no matter how great the “many” becomes.

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