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You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Wed, 15 Dec 2004

Social context in the Monkeysphere
I'm going to cheat here, and respond to one of Beemer's comments in the blog itself rather than with another comment. Mostly because he brought up some points I wanted to address but hadn't gotten around to. This is what I meant when I mentioned that I had a whole big ball of ideas that I was going to tug on a loose end of and see what came tumbling out.

Beemer points out that his Monkeysphere appears to be a lot larger than 150 people. And that perhaps it didn't matter how big a person's Monkeysphere was, but what the shape of the monkeyfunction was. This makes sense. No, really. Well, maybe it doesn't, but try to keep up anyway. I knew what he meant. And I'm going to tackle both of those assertions separately.

I first came across Dunbar's number (the limit of 150 to human organizations) in the book The Tipping Point, and it's fascinated me ever since. I think that it's not necessarily an absolute limit on how many people an individual person can know, but it is a fairly strict limit on how large an organization can get before social feedback mechanisms no longer work. In other words, beyond 150 people, you need to have a structure or hierarchy or some sort of management organization to make things function because otherwise stuff will fall through the cracks, and people won't care because it is affecting people outside of their monkeyverse. I glancingly addressed this in post about different management structures a while ago, so I won't get into it here.

So how many people can one know? Know in the sense of feeling like if you ran into them at a bar, you'd acknowledge them, say hi, be able to talk for a bit about friends and/or family. It's probably more than 150. One of the keys here is, wait for it... context. You knew I was still on that hobbyhorse, right? I think one of the keys to the expansion of our monkeyspheres is taking advantage of different contexts. I know a lot of people that I consider friends, but only within a certain context. I have folks I know from the chorus, who I often go out to dinner with after a concert, but never interact with them outside of chorus. I have a similar relationship with folks from my ultimate frisbee team. Or from work. Then there are friends who have jumped the threshold and have become part of all aspects of my life (there's a whole separate post which I've thought about writing about why it's difficult for me to achieve that sort of crossover, and what I can do to make it easier to deepen and strengthen friendships so they jump the threshold of the context in which they are started, but I haven't figured it out yet).

Within each of those contexts, I may know only 100 or 150 people, but overall, I can know more because I use the contexts to keep them straight. Or something like that. There's always that weird moment when you meet somebody in a different context, and sometimes you don't even recognize them. I've definitely had that experience a couple times when I'm wandering around San Francisco, and somebody from my ultimate team says hi, and I do a double-take and need a reminder of who they are - they look familiar, but my brain can't place them because they're outside of the context within I normally interact with them.

To address Beemer's second post, I don't think the shape of the monkeyfunction matters so much as how we handle people outside of our monkeysphere. Even if the limit is closer to 1000 than 150, it's still well short of the millions of people in a nation. Or the billions of people in the world. How do we handle that case? I had an interesting speculation about that today (I was sitting in meetings all day today, so I had plenty of time to think about responses to Beemer's comment).

The way in which we handle the case of America seems to be that we have created a "friend" called "America" which we include in our monkeysphere. And anybody else who's "friends" with "America" is automatically included in our monkeysphere. This takes place at lots of levels; for instance, I definitely have a soft spot for fellow MIT alumni, even if I don't know them at all, just because I feel we have a shared experience. We share the same "friend", "MIT".

It actually reminds me of the Fakester phenomenon on Friendster, where people were creating fake personas such as New York City, or the Giant Squid, and connecting to each other via these Fakesters. I wonder if this was just a concrete manifestation of an everyday phenomenon, where we use institutions such as America or MIT as friend placeholders to expand our monkeysphere to handle the social institutions that we have that are much larger than Dunbar's Number.

This leads to the question of how do we design better Fakesters, i.e. how do we create institutions that do a better job of binding us together? In politics, how do we use such things to bridge political divides? Or how do we use them to help create world communities as opposed to resolutely nation-state-oriented institutions? And, if you've been reading my blog for a while, you won't be surprised to hear that my guess is that stories are the answer. Stories are what bind communities together. Stories give us the protagonists that we can use as Fakesters to expand our monkeyspheres. The country of America is nothing more than a shared story, starting from the Founding Fathers, through the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, through WWI and WWII and the Greatest Generation, and JFK and Camelot, and Vietnam, and a story that is collaboratively being created anew every day by its citizens. It's a shared dream.

So that's my response to Beemer's comments. And, just as a note, I know a lot of my posts recently have been less than polished. There's been enough stuff backed up in my brain that I decided it was better to just start getting some of it down rather than try to find the one angle by which it would all fall apart neatly. So apologies for some of the incoherence.

And also understand that this is a work in progress. To some extent, this blog is an excuse for me to publicly map out my brainspace, and I'm very interested in getting feedback. If you don't want to comment on Livejournal, please feel free to drop me an email to the address at the bottom of each post. Thanks to all who read. I appreciate the fact that you're interested in what I have to say. Okay, I'll stop babbling now.

posted at: 22:50 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal