I usually begin with definitions to gain a common vocabulary. This article begins with two stories.
1. You have a ton of monkeys
You are a monkey pet owner. You have several monkeys. When you begin adopting monkeys you give them names and remember them by their attributes. As you begin to amass your monkey army, some of the monkeys do not interact with you that often and therefore begin to be second thought in your mind. The ones who interact with you the most are the closest to you. You recognize them from a distance, you know their names as well as you know what day it is. Those monkeys that are close to you, your intimate circle, are what we will call your “Monkeysphere.”
The psychology question is at what point will you start forgetting their names? When will you begin to start thinking of them as “the other monkeys” or “the monkeys that don’t come to me when its feeding time.” What’s happening is the monkeys are being established in your mind in 2 initial sets. You have a monkeysphere and an extended circle of monkeys. The extended monkeys, even though they are close, are more distant in your emotional response and interactions with them. The answer to the question, “When will you start forgetting their names?”, we have had several studies based on that exact question. We think we know the answer.
2. You are a prehistoric man that lives in a tribe
As a cave-person you understand that living and moving about the bountiful plains in a group is much safer. You are a member of a tribe for support and safety. In this tribe you also have your immediate family and close friends. You have daily interactions with your family and friends. That group we will call your intimate network.
The intimate network you have around you is a small subset of your tribe. You have daily close interactions with them. You might groom each other, talk about the day’s events, share food, protect them with your life if need be, care for them when they are sick. This group is small and tightly monitored. One of the reasons this group is small is that it is made up of people just like you in some manner or they are relatives, who you feel a connection with. What keeps them in your intimate network is the constant actions with them. You are always reminded of their presence and well-being. Much like the monkey pet owner, if you have constant interactions with them, the closer they get to your emotional well-being.
You also look for them as your own personal support network. You will ask for their opinions, affirmations, and look for guidance as well. You may borrow things from them knowing they will say yes, and that you will return them in good order. You take a less critical eye to what they say and they do likewise to you as well.
Your extended network are those in your tribe. You have interactions with them, but not necessarily daily. You conduct or attend ceremonies with them, you might support them from a distance by donating food to the group, and you may attend tribal council meetings to help shape or establish rules for all to follow. Your extended network is important to you, but they are not crucial. You may look at them with a slightly more critical eye than you do to your intimate network, but not like a stranger.
The interesting thing is that we believe there is a set number you can have in your intimate network and your extended network. That number is based on brain size and species. How big is your tribe and how big is your intimate network? We think we have a good idea of that answer as well because it is the same as the first story. The answer is 12 for intimate networks, and 150 for extended networks.
Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.
Primatologists have noted that, due to their highly social nature, non-human primates have to maintain personal contact with the other members of their social group, usually through grooming. Such social groups function as protective cliques within the physical groups in which the primates live. The number of social group members a primate can track appears to be limited by the volume of the neocortex region of their brain. This suggests that there is a species-specific index of the social group size, computable from the species’ mean neocortex volume.
In a 1992 article, Dunbar used the correlation observed for non-human primates to predict a social group size for humans. Using a regression equation on data for 38 primate genera, Dunbar predicted a human “mean group size” of 148 (casually rounded to 150), a result he considered exploratory due to the large error measure (a 95% confidence interval of 100 to 230). [via Wikipedia]
This is important because using this theory, we understand that there will only be about 12 very intimate people in someone’s network and about 150 total. When someone says “How many friends do you think our customers will have?” that is a great starting point.
If this is true, why do people have thousands of facebook friends and have hundreds of people they consider “great friends”? What we see through research is that people have augmented their extended network because in modern civilization people have gotten more secluded. Yes, more secluded through technology. When you wake up you don’t have to interact with anyone if you don’t want to. The sizes of communities have gotten smaller and more niche. We do not have to interact with people like we used to. You probably feel close to some online friend than you do to your neighbor that lives 4 houses down. This is the crux of modern society. We have gotten more lonely.
To maintain our extended network, because we find that people really do need an extended network, we use other avenues to look for affirmation and guidance. These can take the form of online groups, message boards, or another place that you may frequent, such as a grocery store. You may go to the gym to work out and then afterwards sit and talk to the people that work their or others that work out there, because you show similar interests as them, and therefore consider them a part of your extended network. This is the same reason people gossip about celebrities with each other.You and I don’t know any celebrities, but it is a way for us to have a common ground to discuss something. Therefore we reaffirm our morality and our views based on them with each other. Through the use of this dialog we struggle to maintain our values, our principles, and our extended network.
What does this mean to design?
Well, the full meaning of this to design is well beyond the scope of this article, but it can be boiled down to a few things. First we know that most people will have a very close circle, a monkeysphere, of about 12 people. That will be a group comprised mainly of your close friends and family. We also know that most people will have an extended network of about 150 people. Using those two numbers you will have a great start at designing the features and functions of a social network. You can limit features and functions based on those numbers to save on development and iterations. We know that you will not need 50 functions for 500 people, but you may need 50 functions for about a dozen. Of the next set, you will not need 25 functions for 500 people, but you may need them for 150 or so.
When you design for a social experience always keep in mind ‘what is their monkeysphere?’ and ‘where will this play a part in it.’ Most social designers fail to realize this and try to design a small amount of functions for everyone, thereby leaving out the intimate network and leaving user’s wanting more.
This is just a light skimming of the theory and I hope it has motivated you to go out and read more on it.
The original Monkeysphere article, which is a great article and where I got the first story from.
The ultimate brain teaser from the University of Liverpool, which discusses the more technical reasons for Dunbar’s studies.