With new social media platforms emerging every day, it may seem that people are more connected than ever. However, the depth of these connections and relationships may not reach that of face-to-face interactions. While it can appear as though social media allows an individual to expand their social circle, it could be creating the opposite effect. Psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar would likely argue that social media does not make it possible to enlarge one’s social group size and, on the contrary, shifts social behavior in a way that may cause group size to decrease.
Dunbar, in examining social evolution, proposed the idea that language evolved in order to accommodate larger social group sizes. Primates utilize grooming as a means of bonding, but this can be a rather time-consuming activity. Unlike grooming, language allows an individual to interact with several people at once and exchange information about others, which may render it more efficient in this domain (Dunbar 78-79). Replacing language with grooming could allow group size to expand from a maximum of around 50-55 members to 150 members (Dunbar 75). He states that:
The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. Putting it another way, it’s 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 (Dunbar 77).
Thus, while language can allow bonding with a wider social circle, the number of members in a group is still limited.
While social media makes it easier to interact with more people, Dunbar would likely argue that an individual is still limited to a social circle of 150 people due to cognitive limits imposed by the brain. He believes that an increase in neocortex size made it possible for animals to manage more complex social relationships and thus increase group size (Dunbar 62). Because he views social group size as tied to brain size, a change would have to occur in modern humans to allow for a group size beyond 150 members. It is unlikely that social media has existed long enough for human brains to adapt and grow in a way that would accommodate larger social groups. Taking this into account, Dunbar would likely argue that social circles are not truly expanding as a result of social media use.
Further, Dunbar differentiates between types of groups and relationships, noting that “sympathy and neocortex groups are limited by the way in which you relate emotionally to people” whereas the number of people whose name you may know, for instance, is limited by memory (Dunbar 77). As a result, he would likely argue that while social media may increase the number of people whose existence you are aware of in the world, it will not increase the number of people you truly relate to on a deeper level. However, the overlap between these types of relationships on social media could be problematic. Social bonding is restricted by time, which Dunbar recognizes in proposing that language replaced grooming as more time-efficient from of social bonding (Dunbar 78). Social media allows people to spend their time and energy interacting with a range of people outside of their social group size, which leaves less time for cultivating relationships with those who make up their tighter circle. In this way, social media could ultimately influence the nature of the relationships between those in the 150 group size and maybe even cause a reduction in overall group size as a result.
However, Dunbar may believe that this reduction in group size was probable anyway. Previously, a large social group could bring forth a survival advantage (e.g., ease in locating food, defending resources from other groups, protection from predators). Because of this advantage, Dunbar highlights that there may have been a “relentless ecological pressure to increase group size” (Dunbar 78). Does this same pressure exist for humans today? In some ways, technological advancements have made it so that humans do not necessarily need to share resources for hunting, foraging, and similar purposes. If there is no longer pressure to accommodate a group size of 150 members, perhaps a reduction in group size can be expected. Social media may simply accelerate this process.
In conclusion, though social media allows for efficient, widespread interactions, Dunbar would likely argue that it does not increase social group size beyond his proposed limit of 150 members. Further, this new form of interaction may come at the expense of these smaller groups, potentially resulting in an overall reduction of group size. Ultimately, it is important to distinguish between different types of relationships in order to determine how social media can affect offline social behavior as a whole.
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Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Harvard University Press, 1998.