How many friends are to many friends?

It was interesting to note that the word of 2009 was ‘Unfriending.’

Are we finally waking up to the fact that when it comes to friendship it’s quality not quantity that counts? My friend Matt recently sent me a note about something called Dunbar’s number. This is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of friends that one can realistically have. How large is this number? I was rather surprised to find out that it’s somewhere between 100 and 230, with 150 being a commonly agreed figure.

This seems too high to me, although the average number of confirmed friends people have on Facebook is 120, while a few years ago the average number of contacts (not friends) on linkedin was 60.

Clearly there is a big difference between digital and physical friends, although I’d be really interested to know what the crossover is. What percentage of these 120 friends do Facebook users see in person and how often? It would also be interesting to research the definition of ‘friend’. Interestingly, a University of Arizona study recently found that 25% of Americans have no really close friends at all (friend being defined here as someone that you can talk to about your deepest hopes and fears).


The Limits of Open Intelligence

I had a question from someone in the audience at the RSA yesterday concerning distributed or open intelligence. His point was disagreeing with mine in that he thought that the future of scientific research and innovation was in open systems.

I am not against distributed innovation, open innovation or the ‘wisdom of crowds’ but I think that there is a limit to how far you can push it. The wisdom of crowds, for example, is largely a statistical phenomenon. Moreover, I firmly believe that in the future it will still be individuals and small groups that will be responsible for most of the radical new ideas, although these new ideas may, in turn, be developed and refined by large networks.

Specific problem solving is somewhat different and here open systems do have a huge role to play. But for really radical ideas you need a single maverick mind.

This makes me think about Jaron Lanier’s point that the network (i.e. the internet) has become exalted as being far more important than any individual. That we care more about the abstraction of the network than we do about real people. This in turn makes me think about some aspects of new media, and to some extent Web 2.0, in that without content any new channel is meaningless. A channel cannot be revolutionary without revolutionary content.

Hybrid networks (why we all need to get to know somebody we don’t know)

According to Ronald Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, there are “structural holes” inside organisations. For example, a study by Mr Burt inside Raytheon (a defence company) found that not only did those managers with wider social networks come up with the best ideas but also that people who talked to close colleagues about their ideas tended not to develop their ideas whereas those that went outside work for a discussion tended to get much further. In other words, homogeneity kills creativity at some level whereas serendipity encourages it. This makes perfect sense to me although perhaps someone should tell those individuals frantically widening their social networks on sites such as Facebook and Linked in because Burt’s observation suggests that such networks tend towards more of the same. Sites such as these seem to be predicated upon the belief that the more people you know the better off (in all senses) you will be. But these sites inevitably attract like-minded individuals and information and experience tends to narrow. Mr Burt is not against social networks as far as I can tell but be does seem to be saying that one should pursue hybrid networks that have no apparent social structure.