Dunbar’s Number, Facebook, and what really constitutes friendship

There is an interesting article on wired.com today regarding a journalist’s experiment in proving Dunbar’s number wrong.

Technically “Dunbar’s number,” a theoretical limit that pegs the number of social relationships one can maintain at somewhere between 100 and 230, applied to everyone, but I couldn’t help but take it personally.

Fast forward to late 2011. I had more than 2,000 Facebook friends. I’d singlehandedly disproved the Brit’s sociological theorem. Did I interact with every one of those 2,000 people? No. But they showed up in my News Feed. And wasn’t that enough?

Not for Dunbar, apparently. He was looking for individual interactions. Well, I thought, if that’s all it takes to disprove Dunbar’s number, then that’s what I’ll do: I’ll write personal letters to every one of my 2,000 Facebook friends.

His conclusions are:

My experiment’s outcome was crystal clear: Dunbar’s number kicked my ass.

In trying to disprove Dunbar’s number, I actually proved it. I proved that even if you’re aware of Dunbar’s number, and even if you set aside a chunk of your life specifically to broaden your social capital, you can only maintain so many friendships. And “so many” is fewer than 200.

Writing my Facebook “friends” had taken over my time. I was breaking plans with real friends to send meaningless messages to strangers. Some of the strangers didn’t respond, and many of those who did respond only confirmed Dunbar’s theory.

I walk away from this experiment with a newfound respect for 1) British anthropology and 2) My real friends. There aren’t too many of them, I now see. So I better treat them well.

For around a year now I have been trying to cut down my friend list on Facebook.

When I fist joined Facebook, Bebo and MySpace in 2006/2007 bragging rights were to be had about who had the highest friend totals. By mid 2010 I had 500 friends. However, the more friends I had, as the author of the Wired article also experienced, the less time I spent with friends in real life. I also noted that the general mood of many posts on Facebook is negative and this brought down my own mood.

Over the last year I have halved my Facebook friend list. I have essentially created a rule for myself for deciding friendships. If I have not interacted with someone in the last two years then they are not really a friend. I have also removed and/or unsubscribed from people who post excessive amounts on Facebook.

Personally, I used to be one of those annoying people who always posted multiple times a day. One of my goals this year is to cut down on that and at the moment I am being rather successful in limiting myself to one post per day. I am also rather regularly spending evenings offline and doing stuff in the real world.

I would not say that these changes have been the magic bullet in making me feel happier. I still struggle with loneliness living so far away from many of my best friends and family – and Facebook is a vital tool in maintaining long distance friendships. However, the actions that I have taken have made me value and spend more time building deeper friendships with the people who are really worth it.

What I have also found fascinating over the last year is that I am not the only geek who is feeling these things and heading in the switch off social media direction. Geeks have this great stereotype of hiding away in dark corners and keeping to themselves. However, it seems there is a limit to how much virtual interaction we can engage in before we need to experience some real world friendship too.

An off button for the mind?

“…America as a nation produces twice the goods and services per person that it produced in 1948. Everyone in the country could, in principal at least, work a four-hour day or a six-month year and still maintain a standard of living equivalent to that enjoyed [back then]… [however,] America took none of its productivity gains in additional leisure. It bought consumer items instead.”

Bill Bryson, Made in America.

The above quote comes from a book first published in 1994. By now I would imagine the productivity rate would be even higher. Yet somehow we find ourselves working even harder and longer with that desire for more, more, and more.

Over the past few days I have been pondering my own productivity. Like many people over the last few weeks I have been on leave. A time when people should take a break from their daily grind to relax. Instead I have found myself doing all those things that I have let pile up over the past few months and the more things I have done the more things I remember I have to do and the more burnt out I feel.

Some of these things are personal, like cleaning up around the house, reading, and shopping. However, many other things on my list of things to do are items I would still consider work such as editing websites for friends or even attending social functions.

Now some of this non-primary work is good, it allows us to develop other skills through hobbies and the like. But it also means that we are never getting rest. We are always go, go, go.

A lot of course has been written about work/life balance and my desire isn’t to rehash all that.

Instead I just wonder if in a world of instant everything if we can ever truly get a break?

I would love to spend a few days with no cellphone, no social media, absolutely nothing instant. Not for the torture of it, but instead for the benefit of my mind and body to release.

The problem is in the past I have turned off my cellphone for only a few hours and people have started to panic because I haven’t replied to text-messages.

Yesterday I found myself with a desire to avoid the internet most of the day, until ironically, I found myself tweeting that I wanted a cave to hide in. Even in my desire to escape the system I found myself expressing myself through it – in a way a lot like this blog when published will.

I wonder what people would think if we started to say no a lot more. Not out of spite, but out of control. No I am not going to do that extra work, no it is fine as it is, no I need time to myself. But instead perfectionism has become a curse to our modern existence. Instead of accepting things for how they are I am constantly thinking what others will think and if only I had more time!

How much improved would life be if one really did only work a four hour, or even a true eight hour day? Not eight hours plus working on that portfolio, researching new techniques, and freelancing at night. But eight hours of work and eight of leisure, true leisure, relaxing leisure, real escapism.

Maybe one day I will get a chance to experience this utopia but right now as I am “escaping” through the writing of this post I am also glancing at twitter, checking cellphones, and thinking about where I need to be in the next hour, what I need to do tonight, my plans for the next week, and how I can make this post more perfect.

Maybe the first step to escaping is to create an off button for the mind.

It’s just a thought.

Slow Death By Rubber Duck

I have just finished reading Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie’s excellent book Slow Death By Rubber Duck – The secret danger of everyday things. I can now tell you I have a very different perspective on just how much human created and introduced chemicals are poisoning our lives. The book isn’t designed to be something that scares you into becoming a homeless hippy but instead a guide to how we can reduce the amount of dangerous chemicals in our lives and improve our lives as a result.

The book analyses chemicals in our toys, clothes, tools, and food and through a combination of history lessons and self experimentation shows the dangers in a lot of products that we wouldn’t even think for one second would be dangerous. In particular highlighting the risks of phthalates, teflon, PCB flame retardants, mercury, triclosan, and plastics including bisphenol A. In the end the conclusion is not to run for the hills but instead to look at what we are putting into our bodies and how can we can stop poisoning ourselves.

This book is a must read for anyone who wishes to improve their health, it isn’t overtly science heavy and is easy to read. At the end of the book there are some fantastic tips about what foods and plastics to avoid and other ways to eat better and live healthier. As a result of reading it I will be watching what I eat and by to try and reduce things the impact of things like mercury, phthalates and BPA in my body. Living more organically has never seemed so simple, or so important.

Home

I have spent the last week and a bit at home, New Zealand. During that time I spent four days in Auckland catching up with friends and five days on the road with two Australians visiting Waitomo, Taupo and Rotorua.

During the last six months I have been trying to fit into Australian culture but it has been a long and hard process to do so. Returning home I expected to have changed enough that I wouldn’t quite fit back into New Zealand culture either. However, within half a day of being back I felt as if I had never left – finally there were people who could understand my accent, my mannerisms, and accept me just as I am.

Being back home has left me questioning where my true home exactly is. I am a born and breed fully blooded sixth-generation Kiwi. I am not European, I am Pacifica, I am Pakeha, and I am proud of my New Zealand heritage.

There is a far too cliché saying that states “home is where the heart is”. For me, the last six months have been an interesting journey into the heart. For the first three months of living in Sydney I was immensely lonely. Not knowing anyone crushes the human spirit. Of course making friends is a solution to loneliness that challenge is simpler on paper than it is in reality. After six months I have begun to build a number of friendships in Sydney, however, it will be many years until the number of friendships will even get a chance of rivalling those I have in Auckland.

So where is the heart now? I feel like it is in the middle of the Tasman Sea, torn between two different countries, and buried under a sea of emotion. A few weeks ago I had someone attempt to convince me that emotion was a bad thing and that showing your emotions was a sign of weakness. However, I see emotion as a strength, it gives us feeling, lets us know when things are going well, and when they are not. Emotions can be soul destroying though; especially when you let the downward emotions overrule the confidence ones.

It is with a bit of sad emotion that over the next sixth months I see myself fishing this heart out of the sea and continuing the westward shift towards Australia being my home – at least in the short term. While New Zealand will always be my whakapapa (origin), Australia by virtue of work is now my residence, and it is within that context that in order to move forward in my life I need to work in. I may be a stranger in a foreign land, but when in Rome you must do as the Romans do, however you must never forget your past, where you came from and who you are.

God is in the Rain

I awoke this morning to rain outside my apartment window. I have now just arrived at uni quite wet after walking to the bus, and walking from the bus to my office. But I am rejoicing.

It is odd to rejoice about rain, in fact many people curse the rain, but I like rain, it is awesome, particularly after such a long period of little to no rain.

Rain is the bringer of life, it keeps us alive, it keeps animals alive, it keeps plants and trees alive, it keeps the world alive. Rain is so often referred to as being depressing. But I think we should celebrate in the rain, celebrate life, and celebrate how without water falling freely from the sky we wouldn’t be here.

When the king smiles, there is life; his favor refreshes like a gentle rain. – Proverbs 16:15 NLT

The Masquerade of Humanity

Over the last few weeks I have been observing people and the way in which we all as humans wear different masks depending on the circumstances we are in. Some people claim that this is just their form of being “bi-polar” but I think there is something deeper to it.

I am always my harshest critic and often find myself getting pissed off at myself for the way in which I talk, act and do change depending on who I am around. Now it is perfectly natural to act more casual around your friends as you are more relaxed and not trying to fit into the societal norms that are expected within a workplace for instance. However, I find it frustrating how people become entirely different depending if they are at school, church, home, work and the associated social groups.

For instance within Christian circles there is a label applied to those who just come to church on a Sunday and spend the rest of the week acting as if they are just like everyone else – so called “Sunday Christians”. Now don’t get me wrong, it is very important to fit into society and to interact with it, but surely if you are as hardcore Christian as you make yourself out on a Sunday this should show through during the rest of the week.

Or how about those people who are uber geeks at uni but spend the rest of the time trying to play down their intellectual ability. I mean why can’t we just be who we are?

And yet as I write this I am also realising that in a way I fit the people who I am describing. Maybe this is why I get so annoyed at them, because I am one of them.

But I digress from my key point. Should humanity throw off the masks that they hide behind and show who they really are? Is true honesty too much to ask for? Or are we just too comfortable living in our dream world where all business men wear suits and all the artists wear clashing colours that they call fashion?

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. – Dr Seuss