Look Up the Number

When Your Bank ‘Likes’
You as Much as a ‘Friend’

‘Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are.’ From a superficial standpoint, Goethe had no way of knowing that, over two centuries later, his words would still be current, invoked in a story about social networking. After all, a lot has changed since, or has it?
Despite its technological patina, the Internet only enhanced what essentially was already there since our times as chief foragers of the land: our limited ability to extend the web of our meaningful relationships. That even if we consider that our own brain has grown to catch up with our social adaptability needs.
Thus, when the British psychologist Robin Dunbar came up with a number to serve as a parameter of how many people can actually be a factor on our lives, and us on theirs,  he mostly confirmed what many kinds of social interactions were already suggesting, even before his time.
The Dunbar Number, which is 150, by the way, is the average, some would say, limit, number of people we not just know by name, but also share a deeper story or connection with. They do not include your boss, or your bank, the Korean deli worker you chat everyday, or even your drug dealer, if you happen to have one (we won’t tell).
At the same time, among those 150, are the closest members of your family, your truly dearest friends, your childhood partner with whom you set up shop, and maybe the proverbial former lover or two. You may not see or talk with them that often, but if you run into them on the street, chances are, you’ll stop and spend some quality time together.

Goethe, of course, had something else in mind when he formulated what became one of his most well-known quotes. He was referring to what can be revealed about you just by the company you keep, and boy, isn’t that still so true. Again, we’re not talking about your buddies at the local waterhole, or your lover’s annoying mates.
But if you’d happen to brag about your 500 friends on Facebook, that could give everyone an important hint about the kind of person you really are: first, that you’re a liar calling them friends. Secondly, at least another thousand would know more about most of them than you’d ever be capable of telling.
More importantly, it’d show that you have no idea what friendship is really about, and you’re either naive for believing those people would skip work to come to rescue you from a fire, or you’re trying to impress those surround you with your enlarged ego, no matter how many times they’ve ‘liked’ your latest post. Plus, well, let’s lay off the bashing of you for now.
The point is that, even if you couldn’t find anything else to do in life but to cultivate relationships with strangers, you’d probably fail to keep up with the multitude of multiple, developing stories, any number of people above 150 would generate on a moment to moment basis. And if you do that for a living, you’re not a friend, you’re a promoter.
Didn’t we say we were out of the business of putting you down? Sorry about that. But it’s easy to see the point of yet another quote, this time from the equivalent of common wisdom of Goethe’s time, our own pop culture: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer (we’ll give you a moment to look that one up).

Folks at social and relationship sites, who’re fully invested in creating a need to have a bigger network of acquaintances, would naturally disagree, as if that could be interchangeable with having a handful of close friends. But there may be something else, beyond the strict commercial interest of their argument.
It’s not that we’ve evolved as a species per se, requiring more people to be part of our life. On the contrary; many deplore the state of our contemporary society, when it’s very easy to fall through the cracks of a busy schedule, or a stale routine, and be trapped till death in an isolated apartment somewhere.
But we are more exposed than ever to the lives of everyone else, and that may create the illusion that we know those people we follow on Twitter, or the celebrity tabloids we read about in the grocery line. It’s undeniable that we’re forced to know now more than we’d ever wanted about people that, deep inside, we have no idea who they are about.
This apparent contradiction is the wonderbread and the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter that feeds the entertainment culture. We think we know what kind of cars they like, or who’s their current crush, but heaven forbid if we’d get too close to them. It’d be the time for those burly men with earpieces that you see on the movies to come after you, and you know how does that end.
Still, someone like FB founder Marc Zuckerberg, known for being fiercely private, has made billions selling the wonders of not having privacy at all to millions of gullible subscribers. While they bask in the ‘anonymity’ of having their innermost secrets published on the Internet, he quietly cashes his checks.

It may sound as if we’re now bashing the guy, but it’s not, honest. And if it is, he can certainly take it. What’s a pity, and an almost always lost opportunity, is that, with such global reach, services such as FB and others could really change the world for the better. Instead, they just sell you another illusion, that you own it big time.
Meanwhile, H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth invented a methodology to gauge how many people you do know, using a series of common names, such as Michael and Robert, and established that Americans, for instance, know in average 290 people. That, being a considerable low number, served nevertheless for a more ambitious survey.
Columbia University researcher Tian Zheng led a team who took Bernanrd and Killworth’s approach, and asked 1,500 U.S. residents how many people they knew, but using a different, less common set of names, such as Shawn and Brenda. Their result jumped to 600 acquaintances in average. Something to do with how we best remember unusual names. There was no Duncan Number mention on the NYTimes Andrew Gelman story about it.
There was, however, a curious caveat in the numbers determined by the Columbia team: ‘Americans know just 10 to 25 people well enough to say that they trust them.’ That, apparently, is the small detail that contradicts the whole assumptions of the survey. Which is probably only an initial sample of a much larger undertaking, for sure.
Thus, how many people do you know, follow, or trust? You can put on a list, if you have stomach for going over later and realizing that you didn’t include Uncle Bob, your favorite, in the list of those you could trust. Not after what he did to you when you were in Sixth Grade. But still, can you live with the guilty feeling?
That’s how hard it is putting on writing who do you really consider your true friend, and how you’re going to cross paths with your drinking buddy, as you do every week, and not flinch, thinking that you did not consider him as such. And, this being the age of Reddit, how can you be sure that your list won’t surface tomorrow on the Internet?
Perhaps the counter argument to our obsession for being digitally connected with parties that we wouldn’t recognize even if we’d bump on them on the streets has been defined a century earlier than even Goethe’s. Thomas Fuller, who lived in the 1600s, may have put it better than anyone else, so far: ‘it’s better be alone than in bad company.’
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* Counting Glyphs

3 thoughts on “Look Up the Number

  1. […] like everyone else, so it’s very refreshing to read Colltales. For example, this latest post, Look Up the Number, which talks about relationships, social media, and much more. And this one, Good Morning to All […]


  2. eremophila says:

    I most certainly have to agree with Thomas Fuller and I’ve lived by that premise for much of my life.


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