Finding My Digital Version of Dunbar’s Number
How many times have you heard someone’s intention to delete their various social media accounts and “disconnect” from the world?
This scenario plays out so often that it’s become a cultural joke. The person who announces their desire to “quit” social media is usually seen by their peers as a virtue signalling baby. Their proclamation to remove themselves from the social media sphere ironically casts them as attention seeking and annoying.
But what if they have a point? What if the constant bombardment of updates from other people’s lives is overwhelming, unproductive, and perhaps even unhealthy?
I was recently mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I realized that a significant portion of the content I had consumed was posted by people whom I barely even knew, and frankly, didn’t care about.
This led me to the realization that the time I wasted needlessly scrolling could have been spent connecting and catching up with people I care for.
Dunbar’s number is a concept I heard about quite a while ago, but only recently have I started to think about and internalize all of its implications.
The number suggests that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people one can maintain stable social relationships with. Robin Dunbar, the British anthropologists who first proposed the number, informally explains it 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.”
Dunbar’s fascination with primates and their grooming habits led him to discover a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. It seems as if those people claiming to be overwhelmed with social media are right. There’s only so much social information our monkey minds can process. 🙈
Dunbar’s number consists of a series of different group sizes with the most famous being 150, also known as “your clan.” The size of the group grows and shrinks according to a mathematical formula called the “rule of three.”
Socializing requires two important and scarce resources. Brain power and time. Although you’re not physically in the same room as someone when you are interacting with them through the Internet, you are still expending the same resources. When you see a piece of content shared on social media, it requires brain power to remember how you know this person, why they’re important to you, and how you feel about that specific piece of content. It also takes time to scroll through your feed.
I realized I needed to systematize my social media consumption. I no longer wanted to skim through material mindlessly wasting time and brain power. If someone posts something, I want to engage with it deeply because I care about that person and the content they have shared.
So, I decided to go on a social media purge. Whenever I see a specific piece of content and it does not immediately engage me I ask myself three simple questions:
- When is the last time I had a meaningful interaction with this person?
- Can I learn something from this person?
- Does this person make me laugh?
If the answer scores poorly, I unfriend/unfollow that person. I’ve consciously decided not to create new accounts and reset my social graph. I find the process of removing things from my life to be quite clarifying.
Along with meticulously trying to figure out who I follow/friend online, I’ve spent time thinking about how I want to utilize each social platform. Each question is weighted differently depending on the particular platform and the intentions I have when using it.
I use Twitter to follow people that produce intellectually exciting content. Question number 2 is weighed most heavily when determining who I follow and what content I choose to consume on the platform.
My goal with Facebook is to connect with “my clan.” In this case, question number 1 is weighed most heavily in my decision-making process. I currently have ~1000 Facebook friends, so I have a while to go before I trim down to ~150 🐵.
I predominantly use Snapchat to be the most authentic and in the moment version of myself. The content can often be quite silly, and I want to limit its consumption to my close friends (~50 🐵).
I’ve recently started experimenting with expanding my artistic abilities, and I’ve been sharing my work on Instagram. My intention with this platform is to use it as a creative outlet, so therefore I want to follow people who produce content I find artistically stimulating. This includes meme pages, one of my favourite comedic art forms.
The various social platforms are digital tools, and like any other tool, they can be used for good or bad. A hammer can be used to build a piece of furniture or it can be used to smash someone’s head in. The ultimate utility derived from a tool is dependant on how you decide to use it.
I don’t want to completely go offline, but I’ve acknowledged that improperly using these tools has a negative effect on my productivity and mental health.
Life is short and I don’t want to spend it on bullshit. You can avoid a lot of bullshit by meticulously choosing who you surround yourself with.
A significant portion of my time is spent online, and I want my experience interacting with people in the digital world to be as pleasant and productive as possible.
A related, and even more important topic is deciding who I want to spend my time with IRL. This is a topic that deserves its own post, and I plan on writing about it in the future.
I hope this post has sparked the idea of thinking about how you spend your mental energy and time online. I hope you can find your digital clan. 🐒🐒🐒
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(Note: This post is merely a reflection of what goes on in my weird little head)🤓