Disarmament Insight

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

WOT R U DU-ING? Primates on Facebook (and in disarmament negotiations)

"Have opposable thumb - will Twitter."

The Economist ran an interesting article in late February concerning the British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar's hypothesis about primate neocortex size and Facebook.

Dunbar's hypothesis years ago was that
“the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop. Extrapolating from the brain sizes and social networks of apes, Dr Dunbar suggested that the size of the human brain allows stable networks of about 148. Rounded to 150, this has become famous as “the Dunbar number”. Many institutions, from neolithic villages to the maniples of the Roman army, seem to be organised around the Dunbar number. Because everybody knows everybody else, such groups can run with a minimum of bureaucracy.”
Dunbar’s hypothesis is not without its critics, including among other anthropologists. But recently The Economist teamed up with the in-house sociologist at social networking website Facebook, with its trove of data, to crunch some numbers and see if light could be shed on the validity of Dunbar’s idea.

Their findings as detailed in The Economist’s article tend to confirm Dunbar’s hypothesis. The average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is around 120, and women tend to have somewhat more “friends” than men (although some Facebook members’ networks are far larger, of course. For the record: mine isn’t, and I seem to be somewhat under-endowed in the network size department. Ahem.).

Strikingly, “the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom he (or she) frequently interacts is remarkably small and stable. The more “active” or intimate the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group.”

This would seem to equate with my own experience of Facebook; phrased another way: Facebook involves a lot of superficial social contact, but isn’t a good way to improve trust with “friends” I don’t know well already – my most active interactions are with people I already know well.

For this and many other reasons, I’m a reluctant and somewhat ambivalent Facebook user, and have long suspected another point in The Economist article, that, on the whole:
“people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a polling organisation. Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever.”
Dunbar’s hypothesis was also of interest to me because previously on the Disarmament as Humanitarian Action project we’d observed that a lot of activity on the margins of negotiations seems to be as much about “social grooming” – that is, informal trust building – than about the direct exchange of information. Dunbar’s work provided a number of interesting ideas we explored in our last two volumes of work (see column at left).

For example, negotiating processes tend to involve many hundreds of people. The sheer mechanics of managing this means that exchanges in conferences often become very set piece in terms of social interaction. In our third volume of articles on ‘Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament Negotiations’ we suggested that in conference diplomacy processes of sizes beyond the “Dunbar number”, cognitive difficulties for individuals in following evolving dynamics could become overwhelming.

Therefore, an important part of evaluating what makes negotiations ‘successful’ should entail not only analysis of substantial political issues, but also some thought about the structural aspects of negotiators’ interactions since this can make things easier or harder. We described this as ‘cognitive ergonomics’, and explored it in greater detail as part of our recent publication on ‘The Value of Diversity in Multilateral Disarmament Work’. The general idea is that improving opportunities for dialogue and trust building at a face-to-face level should improve negotiators’ chances of success. And it links to arguments about perspective diversity from Scott E. Page and others that are highly relevant to group prediction and problem solving issues.

I’ve noticed that many of my disarmament diplomat colleagues are pretty active Facebookers. Well and good, but as long as nobody sees it as a substitute for the face-to-face dimension of trust building in diplomatic work.

In fact, I have my doubts whether Facebook is even a useful trust building supplement, as it doesn’t seem of much relevance beyond a broadcasting tool. But I predict that as the year unfolds and there are plenty of long disarmament-related conferences to sit through, Twitter is going to be the next thing many disarmers pick up on. I’m not a Twitterer, but I understand the idea is that you broadcast to other Twitterers on your network what you’re doing in messages of no more than 140 characters (“What are you doing?”).

Ironically, Twitter might conceivably be good for diplomatic trust building if it dawns on enough people that they could be more productively using their time interacting in person in smaller groups outside the formal conference room than passively behind the nameplate. (“What am I doing? Same as you – sitting here. What the hell are we doing?”) Whatever happens, it’s hard to see newfangled technology winning out over the lure of coffee and cigarettes anytime soon.

John Borrie

'Chimp hand' by John_X downloaded from Flickr. His caption said: "Biologically, the chimpanzee is closely related to humans, so many of their characteristics may seem familiar. The most remarkable physical similarity between chimpanzees and humans is the opposable thumb. The thumb allows chimpanzees to grab objects and use tools much like we do. Unfortunately, chimpanzees are currently on the endangered species list. Populations have decreased because of foresting, hunting, commercial exportation, and collection for scientific research." Taken at the Los Angeles Zoo on June 18, 2008.

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