A follow up to my earlier post on information technology, In The Age Of Facebook, Researcher Plumbs Shifting Online Relationships:
“You can ask somebody, ‘Of your 300 Facebook friends how many are actually friends?’ and people will say, ‘Oh, 30 or 40 or 50,’ “ said Baym. “But what having a lot of weak-tie relationships is giving you access to are a lot of resources that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Because we do tend to cluster in relationships with strong ties to people that are pretty similar to ourselves. So they don’t necessarily know a whole lot that we don’t know. They haven’t necessarily been a lot of places that we haven’t been. They can’t volunteer to show us around Sydney, Australia, or give advice on a good reading on a topic. So there are all of these little bits of information and wisdom and social support that people can provide each other when they have a weak-tie relationship — and they can really open up access to resources that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The 30-50 number should be familiar, as it is in the same range as what ethologists such as Robin Dunbar have been reporting for years in terms of how many friendships a human can plausibly manage. Social technology has limits in terms of how much it can leverage our innate capabilities. On other hand it seems plausible that the “long tail” of weak acquaintances can yield some utility in terms leaking more information into one’s social network from the outside. Quantitative shifts in network structure and scope on the margins may very well lead to qualitative changes in human societies, but I don’t think we’ve really thought through in much detail the substantive ramifications.