This entry is in response to/ inspired by Nate Rigg’s post: On Relationship Layers, Time and Facebook
In days gone by, after meeting someone new, you’d probably have to wait to chat with them again until the next time you saw one another face to face or over the phone. Getting to know someone was a slow process. Now, you can add someone on Twitter or Facebook and casually interact with them for months in between. Then, next time you see them, you’ve already done a tremendous amount of “getting to know” the person, the “layers” have been broken down in between.
What’s more, there are countless sites where you can have profiles which explain every detail of your life. Who should you go see a movie with? Check Facebook. Who should you go to a concert with? Check Last.fm. Online dating is the same way. By the time you get together for a first date, you probably know much more about them than you would on a “normal” first date. My favorite is OkCupid. I wish everyone had an OkCupid profile because based on the questions you answer, it tells you (pretty accurately, in my experience) how compatible you are with that person.
Technology does give us a greater capacity to learn more about people quickly and maintain more casual friends. But let’s go a step further. Carrying Capacity is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain. Given that people also have limited time and resources, I’ll wager that this holds true with interpersonal relationships, too. That is, there’s only a certain number of relationships we can sustain at one time, otherwise the health of those relationships are affected. If we’re not careful, having a huge network of “casual friends” may cut into the deep, meaningful, (often face to face) time we have with people we REALLY care about. Dunbar’s Number theorizes that because of the size of our brain and our limited time we can only maintain a “stable interpersonal relationship” with 150 people at a time.
Relating to social media, we talk about this a lot in terms of “if you follow 30,000 people, how much time can you really devote to any individual”. Thus, many encourage following a reasonable amount you can actually interact with. Once I’d hit the following mark of about one thousand, I no longer saw even a fraction of my stream. Twitter has (as does Facebook) lists to help out. so I added my very best friends, colleagues, and others whose tweets I simply did not want to miss to a private list. I didn’t want adding more followers to hurt my relationships with those people. If you believe Dunbar, your “private list” shouldn’t be much bigger than 150. In my case, it’s about 250, but of that, many rarely/never tweet.
While technology does change things, people compensate and we end up breaking even. This happens in two ways: 1) The more we can do, the more we’re expected to do. 2) The more something is done, the less meaningful it is.
A National Bureau of Economic Research study noted: “Average hours spent in “home production” – that is, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and the like – are actually slightly higher now than they were in the early part of the last century. … ‘Having clean clothes, clean dishes, a clean house, and well-cared for children was just another luxury the poor could not afford.’ … Labor saving appliances were used to help bring about a revolution in sanitation, cleanliness, and better nutrition.” That means, despite how much easier it is to clean, we’re expected to be more clean, so we’re actually spending more time on it.
Dunbar’s theory relates to time and memory. We can’t (significantly) change either, but we can maximize them. In Beating Dunbars Number, Chris Brogan has some really interesting “hacks/techniques” to do just that. Chris uses a CRM software which acts as an assistant to help with the “memory” problem. From post-it notes to software, we all use tools to help us remember things. Discover Magazine’s How Google Is Making Us Smarter says “humans are ‘natural-born cyborgs,’ and the Internet is our giant ‘extended mind.’ Just keep in mind, we’re not actually remembering more, we’re remembering links or shortcuts to more things. And the more that’s possible, the more things are vying for a little patch of memory. No one remembers any one’s phone number any more, because they’re all stored safely in cell phones.
Facebook displays your friends’ upcoming birthdays on your homepage. Some consider posting a “Happy Birthday” to be part of the “social contract of using Facebook” and not doing so to be a “faux pas”. Since Facebook makes it so easy (it becomes almost a given) and/or there are so many cookie-cutter greetings that getting one means almost nothing. Any other means of communicating your well wishes means more. The truer the friend, the more likely they’ll text, call, make plans, send a card, get you a gift.
Conclusion: Technology, the internet and social media can allow you to: side-step some of the traditionally tedious “getting to know you” stage, better maximize your time with people, maintain causal relationships with more people. But, we all still have the same “bandwidth” we’ve always had. And with faster lives, and more things vying for our attention, having meaningful, long-lasting relationships is even harder now. Find ways to make to make technology work for your relationships in the deep sense (spending meaningful time with people), not just the broad (maintaining loose circles of hundreds or thousands).