The idea of information overload has been swirling in my head for quite a while. The idea that our brains simply are not capable of dealing with this constant barrage of information. I wrote a post about the effect usage is having on my mind a few days ago — and it turns out I’m not the only one.

 In 1992, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed a maximum maintainable number of social relationships. Defining these relationships as Social friends “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”. Placing the number between 100 and 250, with the commonly accepted number being c.150.

Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

Bare in mind this number is based on his observations of observations of primates. Yet he found a direct correlation between primate brain size and average social group size, extrapolating the numbers for the average human cortex size. There is lots of support for this such as Malcom Gladwells book Tipping Point, who found by trial and error if more than 150 employees were working together in one building, different social problems could occur.

But Thats So 1992

You might think so what! Thats research done in 1992 and based on monkeys, yet Dunbar himself studied Facebook in 2010 and discovered our brains just can’t keep up.  In primates once their group gets to a size around the 150 mark, they simply split into different groups and go their separate ways. Yet in our online world, we ‘friend’ more people than we could ever keep up with. That doesn’t mean we have to now unfriend everyone, but limiting the information we process from outlying people could be the key to a healthier mind.

I really feel that our brains just aren’t cut out for the amount of information we are trying to cram into them. Which is a shame considering how much good social networks could do for us. Yet the disadvantages are coming close to my own tipping point where negatives clearly outweighs the positives.  It is so easy to cultivate a ‘news feed’ built around our own beliefs, and our own ideas that we rarely see anything from outside our own echo chamber. Facebook et al play with the ‘news’ so much that it barely represents reality any more — are you catching onto where I am going with this?

Are social media friends really our friends? If you have more than 150, could you still maintain a level of social relationship detailed above?