27 October 2019

Infinite village

Humans have a limited ability to maintain social connections; it seems to be about a hundred and fifty people in the abstract (Dunbar's Number) but being authoritarian -- defining and enforcing strict social roles, so you don't need to think much about your relationship with other people -- can make it easier to get the group size up, toward the cognitive limit.

Other people have since produced different estimates; various other people are pretty sure paleolithic human groups were nutritionally limited before they were cognitively limited.  You need agriculture to get the social grouping size large enough to run into the cognitive limits on band sizes.

So it's a cool factoid.  What makes it interesting in context is that you can look just a little more into Dunbar's work and find out that the cost got quantified in terms of social grooming time.  Maybe not literally removing bugs, but spending time maintaining the social connection. For the maxed-out group size, you get to about two-fifths of all your time being spent on (the technical sense of) grooming behaviours.

Social media is a social grooming amplifier; it creates a belief in connection.

It doesn't create the actual connection, or empathy, or any kind of detailed knowledge, but it does create a belief in group membership, emotional group connection, and a common narrative label for events.  Which means being in control of a social media platform gives you a ridiculous amount of power; you get to pick the questions.  (Maybe not the answers, strictly, but picking the questions is more than enough.)


Moz said...

I find social media problematic for exactly that reason - it creates the illusion of connection, but it's largely one way and collapses as soon as you try to use the connection for anything.

There's a law that says most of your friends have more friends than you - most friendships involve one hyper-connected individual and there's a power law decay in number of friendships across the population. So the typical person is 'friends' with 3-5 hyper-connected people and one or two other minimally connected people.

Social media makes that worse, and semi-social media even more so - we all watch the same 50 most popular youtube channels, but while it may feel intimate it most definitely is not. You see that most dramatically when famous people withdraw from it because the demands of being famous are too much (and social media doesn't pay enough to compensate for the demands).

But at the micro level same problem - hence the meme of facebook friends never turning up in person. You have "associations" we all these people online, but even asking them to meet up for coffee is a big deal, in the sense that you're stepping outside the bounds of social media and that phase transition will break most of your connections.

This also affects online dating, amusingly enough, because the mental/social cost of not following through is negligible (the relationships don't feel real). I often see people struggling to bridge the "hidden" gap between the online relationship and actually meeting in person. Lots of no shows as a result, despite the nominal purpose of the sites being to physically meet.

Moz said...

Also, the reason being famous has to pay is to both compensate of the loss of privacy, and pay for the affordances necessary to survive being famous. Not bodyguards so much as that if you can't just pop down to the shops to get milk you have to employ staff to do that for you. And if you can't just live in a random house without it being besieged by paparazzi you need to be able to afford a house that can cope, and in an area where that can be permitted.

One of the youtube channels I watched vanished for that reason - it was great for a while that companies would sponsor them and pretty much everywhere they went fans would seek them out to help and admire them, but after a couple of years that feeling flipped and now they were constantly barraged by people demanding they shill garbage, and they couldn't go anywhere without some internet weirdo presuming a familiarity that didn't exist. Sadly because they were in New Zealand the country was too small to let them just can the channel and move on, so they sold up and come to Australia.

Graydon said...

+Moz famous doesn't come with feedback. It'd be very interesting if someone managed to produce something so that the other fans could provide conduct feedback, everywhere between "well done" and "feed to the rippy-fish", but I don't know how you'd go about it.

There's a strong general analogy with printing; you get the Reformation and generational wars. We're getting this at the same time we're getting the time of angry weather, so I don't think it's overall auspicious. Having the sum of human knowledge in a pocket beats the besnackers out of "books cost less", though, so maybe I'm too pessimistic.

Peter T said...

Side comment - forager band size was generally fairly small, but the minimum size for a linguistic group is at least 1000. So bands always connected sufficiently closely to maintain linguistic continuity over much larger numbers than their routine size would suggest. Often this involved quite long distances (Wiradjuri country in south-eastern Australia was at least 600 kms across, for instance).

Graydon said...

+Peter T people are darn near eusocial in some respects; there aren't very many creatures you could pack into aircraft and fly across the Pacific and have everyone pretty much get along. (Don't try this with chimps!)

So, yes, languages are larger, larger groups clearly work, but so far as I understand it, the larger groups build on the Dunbar's number group. (which is, at least modernly, optional; lots of us don't know ten people to talk to in any person sense.)

So far as I can tell, the social media cognitive hack lies in everything built up from "you belong", too.

Moz said...

famous doesn't come with feedback

I'm really sorry but I don't understand what this means. To me "famous" is almost a pure feedback effect (you are famous if people say you're famous), and both the benefits and downsides are primarily feedback effects. Giving fans the option to express things about what the famous do is already problematic because they have too many options/there is too much feedback.

Graydon said...

Fame gets applied to you, like spackle; it doesn't come with a way for you to signal anything to the people applying it. You get no feedback at all; involuntary, actively unwanted, fame is a thing.

Among the people doing the applying, there's no inherent mechanism of communication and coordination. Different groups can be reaching for very different cans of spackle. No feedback at all.

Moz said...

Ah, so means for people who don't want fame to signal that, other than by not doing whatever activity made them famous (the obvious example being researchers who win prizes - I suspect there are a few non-Nobel winners who said "fuck no" when approached)