We Get By with a Little Help from Our Friends. And Acquaintances.

On Christmas day, the New York Times published a very smart opinion piece by the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar. In it, he highlights the real value of digital social networking tools like Facebook in our personal lives. It’s not that these tools let us amass hundreds or even thousands of close friends, because we’re not wired to have that many.

His research indicates that we humans generally maintain a maximum of 150 substantive interpersonal relationships, a figure that’s come to be called “Dunbar’s Number.”  So a digital network that’s bigger than that is not going to be full of friends —  people you care about, invest in, and what to stay current with. It’s going to be full of casual acquaintances and virtual strangers, with a core of actual friends at the center.

Dunbar’s point in the Times piece was social networking software is still extremely valuable, though, becuase it lets us stay in touch with our true friends even as they move around the world. He writes

Facebook and its imitators [are] performing an important, even revolutionary, task — namely, to keep us in touch with our existing friends.Until relatively recently, almost everyone on earth lived in small, rural, densely interconnected communities, where our 150 friends all knew one another, and everyone’s 150 friends list was everyone else’s.

But the social and economic mobility of the past century has worn away at that interconnectedness. As we move around the country and across continents, we collect disparate pockets of friends, so that our list of 150 consists of a half-dozen subsets of people who barely know of one another’s existence, let alone interact.

Our ancestors knew the same people their entire lives; as we move around, though, we can lose touch with even our closest friends. Emotional closeness declines by around 15 percent a year in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that in five years someone can go from being an intimate acquaintance to the most distant outer layer of your 150 friends.

Facebook and other social networking sites allow us to keep up with friendships that would otherwise rapidly wither away. And they do something else that’s probably more important, if much less obvious: they allow us to reintegrate our networks so that, rather than having several disconnected subsets of friends, we can rebuild, albeit virtually, the kind of old rural communities where everyone knew everyone else. Welcome to the electronic village.

I think that’s a lovely insight, and a great one to share during the holidays. I just want to add two wrinkles to it —  one about personal life, the other about professional.

I like to get reminders and updates from my personal acquaintances, and even from near-strangers. I like to learn, via Facebook, that former students got engaged or married, that an old colleague had a child, that a distant relative’s kid got into a good school, and so on. I value my acquaintances much less than my dear friends, obviously, but I value them at more than zero, and social networking techs are unprecedented tools for letting me keep in touch with them. Innovations like Facebook Groups help me segregate acquaintances and friends so that the former don’t drown out the latter.

Personal acquaintances are nice to have; professional ones are vital. If Mark Granovetter‘s ideas about the strength of weak ties are right (and they are), then people we don’t know all that well are hugely valuable in our work. They’re sources of novelty and innovation (because they know quite different things than we do) and bridges to other social networks (because they know quite different people than we do).

This implies that digital social tools aimed at facilitating our professional lives might not want to focus too much on helping us stay in touch and work with our closest colleagues. Instead, they might want to help us build, maintain, and exploit a large network of weak ties.

The ability to segregate contacts into discrete groups is again valuable here again, but the importance of the groups themselves might be reversed. In our professional lives, the group of weak ties / professional acquaintances might be where the real action is.

What do you think? Have you noticed in a difference in how you use your personal and professional networks, or what they’re each good for? What further innovations and tweaks to social networking software would help you most in your personal and professional lives? Leave a comment, please, and let us know what you think.