‘Genuine Social Relationships’ and ‘Anonymity’ Online

“Psychologist Robin Dunbar, in his book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, argues that the figure of 150 people in a typical group has a deeper evolutionary basis. It turns out that 150 is roughly the number of living descendents (wives, husbands, and children) a Palaeolithic couple would produce in four generations at the birthrate of hunter-gatherer peoples. […] Even modern farming communities, like the Hutterites p…] average about 150 people.

[…] Sociologists know that once groups exceed 200 people a hierarchical structure is needed to enforce the rules of cooperation and to deal with offenders, who in the smaller group could be dealt with [160] through informal personal contracts and social pressure. […] Even in the modern world with a population of six billion people crowded into dense cities, people find themselves dividing into small groups. [… It also works for the size of military ‘companies’, and] for the size of small businesses, of departments of larger businesses, of departments in large corporations, and of efficiently run factories. […] The average number of people in any given person’s address book also turns out to be about 150 people.

[…] The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuine social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s 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.

[… This] helps explain why people in big cities can get away with being rude, inconsiderate, and uncooperative – they are anonymous and thus not subject to the normal checks and balances hat come with seeing the same people every day.”

Shermer, Michael. 1999. How we Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman, pp. 159-160.

I am sure that many people will have written on this matter since 1999… since the internet became an ever increasing ‘big deal’ for most of us living in the West. However, this did throw up a couple of interesting thoughts for me:

1) What does this say about those people who ‘collect’ friends on Facebook? I know I used to be guilty of that. In fact I really need to do another purge. Currently I am standing at 482 ‘friends’, although I imagine I ‘know’ literally half of them if not even a smaller proportion. I guess it’s most telling when you see a Facebook ‘friend’ walk past you on the street and you both make a conscious effort not to get the other’s attention so that you don’t have to have that awkward conversation where you realise neither of you actually know anything about the other. Not that I think this is always a bad thing… it has certainly been great for getting in touch with some long-lost friends from school, and family members etc. But, to use one example, I have a ‘friend’ on Facebook who currently has 1818 friends. How on earth could you actually have a relationship with any of these people? Why collect them all and why feel the need to tell them things about your life? I actually deleted this person a while back… because I don’t in any way know them… we were involved in a short-term project over three years ago. It seemed natural for us to ‘move on’. However, they then felt the need to ‘add’ me again, and ask why I had deleted them in the first place! I told them why and accepted their persistent request… maybe they are reading this? Who knows… but this must say something about our contemporary need for validation from people we normally wouldn’t care in the slightest about. It’s… sad…

2) This also says something generally about the way people treat the internet. Online you are, in many situations, anonymous. And this has led to people having a remarkable lack of respect and tact… but equally it has given people a place to voice their opinions in situations where they might not have felt able to (such as, topically, in Egypt). However, these attitudes have also started to seep into situations where people are not anonymous… Twitter and Facebook being prime examples. I imagine it will be a few years before the legal system works out how to deal with things that people say in the spur of the moment online without really thinking things through…

Think about it…





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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

3 responses to “‘Genuine Social Relationships’ and ‘Anonymity’ Online”

  1. Dayle says :

    I always found “friend collecting” interesting and slightly disturbing. I just checked, I have 174 friends on facebook, and while I admit that I don’t interact with many of them regularly, all but 3 are or have been real life friends (or are family members). I love facebook because it’s brought me back in touch with a lot of wonderful people from my past . . . the biggest one is my ‘sister’ . . . she was my foster sister 23 years ago before she was adopted by another family. She lives out of state and after 18 years of being completely out of each other’s lives, we now have a connection via facebook.

    My 18 year old cousin, however, has almost 800 facebook friends. It worries me. I see some very personal things posted on facebook and those things are visible to all of your ‘friends’ . . . I’m terrified of where this is leading . . . especially since I have a 6 year old daughter and I don’t even want to think of the internet dangers as she grows up . . . unfortunately, I have no choice.

    I’m rambling, sorry! This topic and others similar to it have been on my mind a lot lately.

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