Friendster as neocortical prosthetic…

09/09/2003

I’ve been reading connected selves on the 150 person limit for weak ties and its relationship to Friendster:

“When i have 200+ friends on a site like Friendster, i’m not a social networks anomaly. What is actually being revealed is that my articulated network goes beyond the relationships that i currently maintain. While a high percentage of my friends and associates are on Friendster, not all of them are. There are quite a few relationships that i currently maintain that are not represented there. Additionally, many of the relations represented are outdated or on hiatus, not because i don’t love or appreciate those people, but because we are not geographically colocated or our personal situations have created a situation where time to connect is limited. This doesn’t mean that i don’t love and appreciate those people, just that they’re not part of my current situation.”

Particularly that early phrase, “I’m not a social networks anomaly”, intrigued me. The assumption seems to be that Friendster just reveals our social networks – uncovers them – and that we had to explain away those circumstances where it seemed to indicate that human beings were managing more than 150 weak ties. This seems odd to me – surely Friendster is actually a mechanism by which we might outstrip the limits imposed by the size and power of the primate neocortex. I can’t find a copy of the classic RIM Dunbar article online anywhere, but I did find an article on Neocortex as a constraint on group size in antelopes in which the author, Peter Taylor, specifically says:

“Social animals group size is not limited by environment or feeding behaviour, but by neocortex size. Social life requires the mental capacity to process relationships and social standing. Therefore bigger groups require a bigger ‘computer’ in order to process all the group information. When the group size increases over the computational capacity the group fractures into smaller more stable numbers.”

It would be cheap to draw a direct parallel between the language he uses to describe our social-network-management wet-ware (‘computer’) and social software online, but I think there are some intriguing and fairly obvious parallels between the kind of information that we use our neocortices to process and the information we try to incorporate into our online social tools – reputation management being the obvious example. This idea of social software and online community software as a prosthetic is one I’ve articulated before but I think this is the most clearly I’ve seen it expressed…

Addendum: There’s a really interesting post in a similar vein on confusedkid.com too.