Social Networking

Posted on December 17, 2010


I’ve been saying for it years, social networking is damaging our ability to communicate with each other –  ironic I know. All this typing and texting and no proper ‘face time’ is forging superficial relationships with strangers and not strengthening the ones we’ve had since puberty.

To me, the idea of ‘poking’ someone is revolting! Why not pick up the phone and arrange a time to have a proper natter and catch up over a pint, a cuppa or if you’re really pushing the boundaries of being civilised, a nice dinner?

Yes, I suppose social networking sites can serve a purpose if you have family and friends abroad, or you’ve lost touch with someone and they’ve suddenly resurfaced, but I’m still not convinced.

You may say I’m a hypocrite for blogging, as it’s also a part of the social network media…..this is true. But the impetus for my posts are not to forge life long friendships, but to try to share with you all, what I am learning in the world of conservation and primatology, and this week anthropology. There’s no chance of me hanging up my social butterfly mantel quite yet.

On Wednesday I attended a lecture at University College London (UCL), where Robin Dunbar, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, was hosting a talk. In case you hadn’t realised –  humans; people; mankind – pick a word, are members of the primate family together with monkeys and apes. According to Dunbar, the way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. For all primates, including us, there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. People have very large brains, although, regrettably not all of us appear to make the most of it.

Human brain

Dunbar has conducted scientific research that  says while social networking sites allow us to maintain more relationships, the number of meaningful friendships have not grown… fact the number of relationships we’re capable of handling has remained the same throughout history. So any of you bragging about having 3,000 friends – who are you trying to fool?

The study has found that humans’ brains are capable of managing a maximum of only 150 friendships. Still a respectable figure. “Dunbar’s number” claims the size of our neocortex — the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language — limits us to managing social circles greater that 150 friends, no matter how sociable we are.

Interestingly enough, the study has also been tested in the world of business, where some of the most successful companies employ 150 staff in any one section; and also in the military for the number of soldiers per troop.

Our closest friendships however, are found to be nearer the number five – these will be the people we care most about and see most often – it’s also the optimum number for terrorist cells!!

How men and women maintain those friendships are also very different. Women, we all know like to talk and do that very well. Men on the other hand will have an average telephone conversation of 7.3 seconds – if that! But face time is still crucial for both sexes. Dunbar says that digital developments help us keep in touch, when in the past a relationship might just have died; but in the end, we actually have to get together to make a relationship work.

When we release endorphins (either from exercise; alcohol; or interaction with friends) we feel better. It’s a win-win situation. So as it’s Christmas, there is no excuse for not putting this data to the test. If you’re sending more than 150 Xmas cards, I’d seriously revisit that list – you’ll also save yourself a fortune on stamps. But more importantly, don’t post your Xmas wishes on your virtual “wall”. Get out of the house, visit your friends and stop being a social networking Scrooge.

Jim Carey in Disney's A Christmas Carol

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