How many people can you know? What's your Dunbar number?

In the same NY Times article i just wrote about, there’s a great section the “hard-wired upper limit on the number of people he or she can personally know at one time” and compares that number between humans and apes.  It reads:

In 1998, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that each human has a hard-wired upper limit on the number of people he or she can personally know at one time. Dunbar noticed that humans and apes both develop social bonds by engaging in some sort of grooming; apes do it by picking at and smoothing one another’s fur, and humans do it with conversation. He theorized that ape and human brains could manage only a finite number of grooming relationships: unless we spend enough time doing social grooming — chitchatting, trading gossip or, for apes, picking lice — we won’t really feel that we “know” someone well enough to call him a friend. Dunbar noticed that ape groups tended to top out at 55 members. Since human brains were proportionally bigger, Dunbar figured that our maximum number of social connections would be similarly larger: about 150 on average. Sure enough, psychological studies have confirmed that human groupings naturally tail off at around 150 people: the “Dunbar number,” as it is known.

The big question then is: Are people who use Facebook and Twitter increasing their Dunbar number, because they can so easily keep track of so many more people?

I find my social networks work against/for this number in 2 ways:

  1. For my good friends the relationships are strengthened through social networks and Twitter. I learn more about them and we’re able to interact more often
  2. There are weak friends that i normally would discard and never talk to again but instead they hang around on Facebook and Twitter and i gradually grow to learn more about them.  Over time they turn into actual friends or i delete them and they turn into nothing.
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Being Digitally Close

There is an article in the NY Times a few weeks ago called “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” and i think it’s one of the best pieces i’ve read in a long time at explaining why Facebook Status, News Feed, Twitter and other new digital platforms are useful and popular.

The online area that the article talks about is “incessant online contact” or as some call it, “ambient awareness.” In the offline world people pick up on moods by little things like body language, sighs, little comments, etc..  In the online world this is being done by microblogging tools like Twitter (140 character updates), Dopplr (where are you traveling?), Tumblr (what web items do you like), and Facebook’s Status Feed.  The article asks the question that i get asked all the time, Who cares?:

For many people — particularly anyone over the age of 30 — the idea of describing your Image representing Twitter as depicted in CrunchBaseblow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.

This is indeed how many people view it.  But the genius of the article is how it explains the subtle usefulness of the information:

Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like “I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus”; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich — and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

This is exactly how it works.  Now, i don’t have ESP through this but i do enjoy the knowledge of how my friends’ lives are progressing. These tools have enabled that to happen and it has certainly enhanced my relationships with them.

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Twitter the most pure social network

Some social network thoughts…..

I’ve been using Twitter more and more lately and i have to say that i’m really enjoying it.  I love the simplicity and ease of use.  The fact that they limit the characters, is only text and is just a list of your friends thoughts makes it always interesting.  Of course, Facebook used to be like that for me too.  I’m not sure if it will ever catch on for the masses.  The fact that only a subsection of my friends use it makes it more useful for me so i don’t get too many updates.  I’m not sure if it’s fun enough for everyone just yet.  I do think the mobile aspect of it could tip it over the edge. I wasn’t that into Twitter until i started doing it on my iPhone and then it became a must-have app.  I still don’t see much difference between the AIM away-message, the facebook status message and Twitter other than the mobile/cell-ness of Twitter and the simplicity.

More and more i think facebook will develop into a utility instead of a place of expression.  I think it will be like the yellow pages – where is a tool people use to look up people, find out about friends of friends and find phone numbers, emails, etc.  It’s a social address and people directory. It’s a tool

MySpace continues to be about self-expression and i think that’s a good differentiator as they could never beat facebook at their game.  However, i do believe self-expression can be done even better.  Something like Uber or Virb or something could be better – if it had more of Tumblr-type experience int it.  We did some focus groups the other day and everyone used both Facebook and MySpace.  They liked Myspace b/c it really represented them – it was a good badge but they hated the sketchiness about it.  “Too many old weird guys” they said.  They had facebook b/c everyone had it and it was easy to connect but it didn’t seem like it was fun to them.  It was interesting.

What are your thoughts

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Like Hansel, these are so hot right now

My cousin P-Walk asked me what sites are “hot” right now. My list of sites that may be below the radar of regular people but getting some well-merited attention is:

  • yelp – anyone who loves food in a city should use this
  • dopplr & tripit – for travel sites they are both good
  • imeem – getting some mean traffic
  • mahalo – really interesting for search (challenging Google by doing it person/wikipedia style)
  • twitter – the most pure social interaction. It could be monstrous. Give this one some serious attention.
  • Tumblr – a great little microblog tool

What am i missing?

(i’m just happy i went the entire post without saying Web2.0)

Building Participation & Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky has a great speech about cognitive surplus. A phrase that refers to the free time we have away from our jobs or studies to do stuff. Over the past 30-50 years, what everyone did with this cognitive surplus is watch TV. Sitcoms were the big universal thing everyone did. In fact there is 200 billion hours of cognitive time/surplus in America that is spent watching TV. Over time however, this time spent has been shifting from TV to participatory activities like social networking to video games.

First there’s talking about participation and how it is THE new phenomenon of this generation and how it is hard to calculate. I like this passage:

The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there’s an interesting community over here, there’s an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can’t predict the outputs yet because there’s so much complexity.

It is a big shift from the past when we would sit and watch Price is Right all the time or other mindless crap. I loved those shows but those days are over…

This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race–consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

The big concept in the speech of the idea of cognitive surplus and how that it is dwindling. We are now participating in activities. Whether it is video games, social networks, or other items online – we are doing stuff.

One good story he concludes with is:

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won’t have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

I do like the thought of all one-way media becoming more interactive. This is definitely happening. It’s one of those concepts like “The Long Tail” that you can feel happening but it’s not until it’s written in a cohesive manner like this speech that it all comes together.

We’re looking for the mouse. We’re going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?” And I’m betting the answer is yes.

Facebook let's you add to your mini-feed

Lots of folks do stuff around the web that is outside of Facebook. For instance, i post lots of Flickr photos and i save web sites to delicious. I’ve always loved the Facebook News Feed as it does a good job of letting me know what my friends are up to. Today it got even better because Facebook now allows me to add Flickr, delicious, Yelp and Picassa actions into my mini-feed. Nice

This is great for a variety of reasons. First, it shows that facebook isn’t the walled garden that AOL was. Facebook is a walled garden, but only for certain things (social graph, photos, social messaging, etc.). For everything else, they are willing to open up and reciprocate. They made a platform to allow users to interact with their assets (people) and have a messaging feature so emails can come in and out but not replace. If they were a basketball team, they may not go around the country and play everyone but at least now they’ll let other come to their court and play a game.

Second, it shows they aren’t trying to be everything to everyone. It could be very easy for Facebook to believe that they can build better products than everyone else and try to compete. This is what AOL did for email, video, destination sites (Sports, News), communities, photos, maps, music, etc – and they lost big. Facebook is clearly maintaining its focus on social activities and even recognizes the difference between their photo app (social photo sharing, not for storage) and Flickr’s (photo blogging, archival) and embraces that. Kudos to them.

Speaking of handing out kudos, you should watch this video (below) of Andrew Bogut’s high fives after his free throws. Not everyone is that eager to congratulate someone.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zc11PUnFgkQ]

Do you "get" Twitter?

I read a post today by Fred Wilson that his kids finally “got” twitter. He wrote:

We are headed to Honolulu today. I twittered that fact and within minutes Joshua was back to me (via text message) with a recommendation for a ramen place called tenkaippin. I didn’t ask for it, but he offered it and we are now headed there for lunch

Earlier this week Jessica had gotten a text from her friends who were in boston visiting colleges. They wanted a recommendation for a sushi place. Jess asked me and I twittered the question

We got back a half dozen messages, and quickly determined the best place which she texted back. Her friends were thrilled

They used to think twitter was a stalker service. They still do, but they also think its awesome (‘at least for you dad’)

i hear what his kids are saying. I’ve been using Twitter for about a month now and while i see some useful parts of it, the service has yet to deliver the goods to me. I don’t have enough people i know on it and i don’t get enough useful twitter posts. It seems to be simply a way for people to advertise for themselves. There’s no real communication. I also don’t know if i should be following more strangers or if that’s tacky. The strangers i do follow (because their are blogs i read) like Mashable and Calcanis simply repeat what’s on their blogs so it’s pointless. I wish they could take the time to add a little more personality to the medium.

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I think it’s hard for kids – or anyone – to understand the utility of Twitter because for the new user it doesn’t offer any immediately positive feedback or benefit. When you first begin, you twitter something and nothing happens – you just sit there. Similar to a typical social network, it’s not until you have lots of friends using it or until lots of users are following you that it becomes useful and even then i’m not sure if it’s much different than a massive chatroom with a better interface

Twitter may hit the mainstream, but i’d be willing to guess that it’s only useful for the hardcore who are actively trying to make it useful. That’s not mainstream, that’s digging for gold. I personally want my web services to just hand me the gold.

Bebo for $850 million. Now Hi5?

This is an interesting graph which shows Bebo, MySpace, Facebook and Hi5. Clearly one of them is stuggling.

However, what Bebo has that Hi5 does not is a English speaking user base which is able to be monetized. AOL has a slew of Advertising companies that must be just itching to get their hands on the Bebo inventory. I’m sure there was plenty of analysis done such that AOL’s pretty sure they’ll earn that $850 back and more

Facebook is a combination of web 2.0 companies

Facebook is a combination of Web 2.0 companies. That’s one way to look at it. The flip side – and more accurate – is to say that there are many Web 2.0 companies that are taking a piece or feature of Facebook and making an entire service out of it. Not the most original strategy, but it does seem to work (at least for some).

Obviously the core pieces of Facebook have been companies already and are very common features around the web. Features such as:

  • Facebook Mail: this feature is exactly like regular mail applications and the FB version of mail is becoming more like traditional email every day. You can send mail to anyone (even if they’re not on FB) and soon be able to receive mail there too.
  • Photos: Facebook has the largest photo service on the web and deservedly so as they took the traditional album upload sites like Snapfish/oPhoto and made them social.
  • Events: They made a much better and easier to use Evite service.

These features have been around for a while, so it’s nothing new that they’ve also been standalone companies. The new services are the interesting ones. What i’m thinking of in particular is:

  • Facebook Share: This is a feature that let’s people post items they see around the web on to their facebook profile. New services such as Tumblr let you repost things very easily too. Don’t call it a blog b/c it’s much more lightweight but it is really more or a repost feature with comments – like the Share.
  • Facebook Status: What are you doing right now? This feature has been around on FB for a long time and now the company Twitter has taken that made it more mainstream, with an API and with other features. In fact, i’ve already blogged about how the two are the same.
  • News Feed: The Facebook News Feed is essentially an RSS reader of your friend’s activity. This concept is not lost on everyone else and a few companies are focusing directly on that. Specifically Plaxo & FriendFeed. They allow you to enter in sites that capture your activity and then they repost it to your friends.
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Whether these services can survive as standalone applications, i’m not sure. I’m somewhat doubtful that there is a business there, but if you can get an audience doing these things, you should be able to monetize it.

Obviously, Facebook is not going to build a feature better than a standalone service can (although they often do), but they are able to integrate it into everything they offer. Items like Events work well on Facebook because they are easily shared and posted around FB. This “threading” is crucial for their success. Ultimately Facebook won’t win in trying to be everything to everybody, but they at least have to try to be most of the core services all in one place – and in this respect FB does a great job.

MySpace vs. FB & the Top Social Network Sites

As with most people, i’m obsessed with Facebook these days.  But is it the best?

From a numbers perspective, MySpace is still the big dog. I read an article yesterday from danah about how Facebook is attracting more affluent, middle-class users whereas MySpace indexes higher for less privileged users.  It’s a good read (article is here)

I also read today that Friendster is still hanging around.  The top social networks in the world are:

  1. MySpace
  2. Facebook
  3. Hi5
  4. Friendster
  5. Bebo

Hi5 is a huge social network in Europe.  I’ve heard from my Romanian friends that this is the go-to place for them.  From what i can tell, it’s a pretty standard site.   Bebo is a UK site that focuses on music, similar to how MySpace does. I think they’re a little more sophisticated in terms of functionality but they definitely haven’t hit it out of the park the way facebook has.

Friendster is a strange one though. It’s functionality is nothing special but it has been around for a long time and has lots of users.  The problem is that it doesn’t have anything unique or special about it and there’s no reason to go back every day.  It is less sketchy than MySpace but less cool than facebook.  It rides somewhere in the middle.  Social networking is such a large phenomenon that there is probably room for a player like this.

What do you think?  What has been your experience with these sites?