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A Brief Primer on Human Social Networks, or How to Keep $16 Billion In Your Pocket

1. Listen to social scientists. 2. Don’t reinvent sociology 101. 3. … 4. Keep $16 billion in your pocket

A Brief Primer on Human Social Networks, or How to Keep $16 Billion In Your Pocket

1. Listen to social scientists. 2. Don’t reinvent sociology 101. 3. … 4. Keep $16 billion in your pocket


Over at The New York Times, Jenna Wortham wonders whether Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp points to a resurgence of small social networks. The article is titled “ WhatsApp Deal Bets on a Few Fewer ‘Friends’” and she asks a lot of good questions:

In buying WhatsApp this week, Facebook is betting that the future of social networking will depend not just on broadcasting to the masses but also the ability to quickly and efficiently communicate with your family and closest confidants — those people you care enough about to have their numbers saved on your smartphone. … Facebook has long defined the digital social network, and the average adult Facebook user has more than 300 friends. But the average adult has far fewer friends — perhaps just a couple in many cases, researchers say — whom they talk to regularly in their real-world social network. ..
Whether the two kinds of social networks can coexist and thrive remains to be seen.

tl,dr: The “two kinds of social networks” of primary and secondary ties can and will coexist and thrive because they have always co-existed and thrived.

For details, read on.

Let’s start by unpacking the word “friend” here because Facebook’s use of the word of “friend” to describe everyone to whom you connect with on Facebook has caused a lot of confusion in this space. We all know that a “friend” is not a “friend” is not a “friend,” so let’s not use one word.

In fact, sociologists have long known and talked about “two kinds of social networks,” and refer to them alternatively as primary and secondary ties, or weak and strong ties. The concept can be found in every introductory sociology textbook because it is foundational to human social interaction. When I used to teach introduction to sociology, it would come up in the first or second week of the class.

Humans are embedded in social networks, and always have been. In fact, research on hunter-gatherer tribes shows that even those early social networks have resembled ours. Human social ties, however, come in a range of strength and intimacy, and always have and always will.

Technology will not alter these basic realities because technology doesn’t make us into new kinds of humans; rather, it just alters the environment in which we act.

Primary social ties, or strong ties, refer to the close, often face-to-face (though not necessarily in today’s world) connections of close, intimate and strong relations with other people. These are the people whose shoulder you expect to cry on in difficult times, and perhaps the first people with whom you share good news. Without primary ties, people tend to feel lost and isolated. Such ties are of great importance to many aspects of a person’s health and well-being. In general, weak ties, no matter how numerous, cannot make up for lack of primary ties. (This is not to be confused with the statement that weak ties are unnecessary or irrelevant. The point is that these are not either/or).

Secondary or weak social ties tend to be the ties that form the larger social networks that humans are embedded in. (These are not to be confused with bridge ties, which connect otherwise disparate social networks and tend to be weaker ties but are not the same concept). In the modern world, these can range from workplace acquaintances to former and current classmates, to more distant kin and other non-kin. As far as we can tell, even hunter-gatherers had such weaker ties in their social networks, so these have always been with us. Weaker ties are important for a variety of reasons: they provide people with company, information, access to resources in other social networks, entertainment, and a pool from which one can draw stronger ties. Research shows that weak-tie networks are essential in many regards, including access to information and opportunity.

At this point, you might be wondering whether the so-called Dunbar’s number, positing a theoretical upper limit of about 150 people in natural human social networks, refers to weaker or stronger ties. Neither, actually. Not in the modern world, at least.

Dunbar’s number is a conjecture about the natural upper bound on the unassisted cognitive processing of information about reciprocal relationships in a social network by the people in them. Dunbar’s calculation is based on the relationship between the size of the primate neocortex and primate group sizes projected onto human social networks. It is an important insight but one that has been applied too widely without understanding what it actually means.

Maintaining a social network requires a lot of heavy cognitive processing. To whom do you owe favors, and who double-crossed whom last? If you grab that fruit from that ape, who will come to his aid, and who can you count on to come to your aid? Who had responded positively to your attempt to flirt and who was your competitor? Remember, the information you need to keep in your head is exponential to the group size: in a group of five, you potentially have five factorial (5!) or 120 groupings. Just double that to a group of 10 and now you potentially have 3,628,800 groupings. [Mathematically, permutations may make more sense to calculate actual number of ties but my aim here isn’t to try to give a precise estimate but to point out that the number of connections are large and grow quickly with group size.] Of course, in reality, not every grouping makes sense, so the numbers in practice are much smaller; but the point is that as groups get larger, the information entropy grows very fast. It’s harder to cooperate, scheme and thrive effectively in larger groups.

Dunbar’s key insight is that as human social networks grew in size, human language (which other primates don’t have) likely developed for us to better keep track of such complexities of group interaction (derided as “gossip” but key to survival in a social group—call it “group informatics” if you want to avoid the judgmentalism). That’s why Dunbar’s seminal book is called “Grooming, Gossip and Language.” (Grooming is how other primates interact to convey social information —they are not really after eating each other’s lice, it’s a social behavior—while we, as humans, talk, or gossip if you will).

Dunbar also predicted that the size of our neocortex, in comparison with other primates, means that we can likely keep track of a maximum of 150 people and the relationships between them all in our head—if (and this is a big if) our social cognitive processing works the same way as primates. As you can see, there are a lot of ifs and constraints in his proposal that don’t necessarily apply universally. Dunbar’s number is a conjecture about a world without writing, let alone modern technology, both of which aid in social network maintenance. It should be clear to anyone that tools such as Facebook make it easier to keep in touch with larger social networks, as did postal letters and the telephone. Dunbar’s number is best thought of as a suggestion about the size of a social group that has to function together to get something done—say, a company in the military—rather than an upper limit to the size of human social networks in general.

In fact, research finds no such small upper limit on human social network size in the modern era. However, research also finds that most of us are truly intimate with only a few people. Hence, my interpretation of research in this field is that primary social network size is fairly constant for most humans throughout history and is in the single-digits, while weak-tie networks in modern era show a much greater variation than posited by the Dunbar number and likely did for millennia. Research suggests that modern Americans’ total social network size can be as big as 500-600 people.

Finally, weak and strong ties are not in some binary dichotomy, opposed to each other and necessarily displacing each other. Tie strength is a continuum, and not all weak ties are equally weak. Neither is tie-strength static: some weak ties will become closer over time and some strong ties will drop from circles of intimacy. Such is life, and has likely been the case even in hunter-gatherer tribes. All that said, of course, there is more variation and fluidity to social networks with industrialization, migration, urbanization and globalization.

Finally let’s come to the final quote:

Chiqui Matthew, 35, who works in finance, said he preferred services like WhatsApp. “I fear all communication in the digital age is being reduced to shouting in a crowded theater,” he said in an email. “Everything is absolute, declarative, exclaimed, public and generally lacking in the nuance of face-to-face conversation. I like the digital version of a ‘cocktail party whisper.’ An intimation meant to be intimate.”

What this person is getting at is that our communication needs change depending on the type of tie. An engagement or a new baby may well be best announced to a large group of weaker ties, whereas most day-to-day conversation is carried out with our smaller, primary social networks. (Yep, Facebook newsfeed versus WhatsApp). This is not an either/or statement. Both types of conversations and interactions are primal, important and central to human social interaction.

Facebook’s key problem for many people has been what academics sometimes call “context-collapse,” which is the sense that Facebook sometimes feels like an extended Thanksgiving dinner where everyone you have ever known is at the table. This is an identity-constraining environment as it’s hard to know how to address such a large crowd at the same time. People have been grappling with this for a long time and have come up with a variety of solutions, including fleeing to Twitter & Instagram and, yes, Whatsapp.

Social scientists have long been trying to communicate this to technology companies: it is normal, natural and healthy to have different communication needs at different levels of one’s social network. One wonders if, early on, Mark Zuckerberg had listened to social scientists rather than declaring “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”, would he now have $16 billion more in his pocket?