Facebook vs. The 150-Club

For the majority of our history, we have spent our days in small, semi-nomadic groups of hunter/gatherers. It was only about 10 000 years ago that the advent of agriculture allowed us to create permanent settlements, and our societies began to grow to today’s immense sizes.

The outer layer of our brain – the neo-cortex – is thought to have evolved largely to deal with the growing complexities of the social world in which we found ourselves. Studies done on other mammals and primates have revealed a correlation between the size of the neo-cortex and the size of the social group. For us humans, the average size of the social group that we have evolved for is generally accepted to be about 150 (give or take an unsober uncle or a distressingly familiar dentist).

So what does this have to do with Facebook? Members of Facebook often have hundreds of connections; whilst these services appeal to our deeply innate need and desire to socialise and connect with people, could they also be straining our inbuilt cognitive systems that have been ‘developed’ on quite different specifications?

Evolutionary Psychologists have found that whilst our core social group might be about 150 people, we classify and discriminate between groups larger and smaller than this. We often have a close kin group of about five people, and a slightly larger ‘sympathy group’ of 12-15. We also comprehend a group of up to approximately 1500 that we might call our ‘tribe’. However – the core 150 seems to be a limit we have on knowing these people as distinct individuals. This means, amongst other things, that we have a significant shared history with them and perhaps understand them well enough to make predictions about their potential behaviour in different situations. Perhaps most important of all though, is the fact that we treat them differently to everyone else, and we expect that different treatment in return.

We live in societies in the first place because they afford us benefits, and these benefits are supposed to outweigh the costs when all is said and done. Philosophers have conceived of the often unwritten set of rules that we conduct ourselves by as a ‘social contract’: ‘I won’t use more than my fair share of the wood supply this winter if you will do the same’.

Charting new rules…

In what ways then are online social networks like our real social world? Do the same rules apply, and if not then do we have new rules? Do we obtain benefits from using these services, and what are the risks? Focusing on Facebook, the immediately obvious point is that most people probably have far more than 150 ‘friends’. One reason for this is that Facebook allows us to keep in close contact with people who in the past would have slipped out of our lives.

Research has suggested that whilst the number 150 is constant, the constituents of any given person’s ‘150-Club’ are not. If someone new and exciting comes along, it means that one of your existing (duller) connections will fall away. Similarly in the past if a high school friend moved countries, the connection would often gradually fade away, and close ties with other, newer connections would take over.

It is the content and nature of these connections that distinguishes them as being within the core 150. It is the sharing of life events, and ultimately a sense of mutual obligation to each other that is the glue that holds the friendships in place.

On Facebook we are suddenly presented with a situation where far more than 150 connections seem to have the characteristics of ‘150-Club’ worthy people. We see photos of weddings, couples’ holidays and graduation ceremonies. We see daily updates on peoples’ lives, and their thoughts and comments on events in other peoples’ lives. This is the kind of relationship that for the majority of our history would have been reserved exclusively for the 150.

This intimate knowledge of our social circle went hand-in-hand with trust and reciprocity – we knew that we could call on the people for a favour if we needed. In return we accepted that we would do a favour for them – there is no serious risk of being taken advantage of because we make physical contact regularly, and feature in each other’s lives on an ongoing basis.

With Facebook the lines are blurred. Would we show each of our 600 ‘friends’ our holiday snaps if we bumped into them at the supermarket? Most, if not all people, would feel uncomfortable claiming favours from each of their Facebook friends and vice versa.

It is obvious enough that new rules and codes and norms have emerged. Some are simple adaptations of traditional social conventions – e.g. not many high school students will be Facebook friends with any of their teachers. Others are so specific to the kind of situations Facebook presents that they have to have been in some way newly created, even if they seem natural. An example of this might be the general feeling of creepiness we would get if a stranger commented on one of our photos, a photo he could only see because one of his friends happened to be tagged in the same album, and you have not had a chance to wrap your brain around the revised privacy settings yet!

It is a novel and challenging situation for us humans, perhaps made even more challenging because of the fact that so much of it seems so natural. The sheer amount of hours that are now spent debating the various processes, condoned behaviours, and subtle restrictions that apply in the world of social networking is evidence enough that there are at least some elements of this new universe that are seriously hogging the processing power of our cognitive systems. We have thrown open the doors to our exclusive ‘150-Club’, and now we are not quite sure how to control the party.



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