You “Liked” what I ate for breakfast, but are you really my friend?

Posted on September 10, 2021 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Resources
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Casually crossing paths with Stanley Marcus or Roger Horchow often proved to be anything but casual.  The two Dallas-based powerhouse retailers, now both deceased, defined good taste on an international level for generations.  Both clearly understood the power of individual social connection long before the term hashtag was created.  “Consumers are statistics,” Marcus once said.  “Customers are people.”

Marcus and Horchow had to reach their customers the old-fashioned way:  in person, by mail, and by telephone.  The emphasis was on personal one-to-one communication.

For example, sitting near Marcus on an airplane or running into him at his preeminent department store almost inevitably resulted in an exchange of contact details.  Within two weeks, Marcus was on the telephone, passing along information to his new acquaintance, usually mentioning other professionals who had mutual interests.  Marcus was an expert at linking like-minded people.

Horchow was an equally adept connector.  He had over 1,600 names in his computer with whom he regularly communicated.  Whether it was a birthday card or a short note commemorating some occasion, Horchow stayed in touch, kept the bond alive.

In 2021, networking is more technologically driven.  Social media is an engine which has a far greater reach than anything Marcus or Horchow had at their disposal.

Despite the boundless marketing possibilities of the internet, mental health professionals are quick to point out its limitations.  By its very nature, social media is relatively impersonal.  Self-worth should not be calculated on the basis of how many people read your feeds.

Psychologists note that the most significant misconception is that “friends” on social media are really friends – the majority are followers.

One of the most irrefutable truths about humanity is that we have cognitive constraints when it comes to establishing large numbers of intimate relationships — we are not wired to have hundreds or thousands of true friends.

One prominent British psychologist and anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., argues that humans are only capable of maintaining meaningful relationships with about 150 other people at any given time.

That figure of 150 is widely referred to in scientific literature as “Dunbar’s number” and is viewed as a credible proposition.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Dunbar states the 150 relationships “includes family as well as friends.  In fact, people who come from large extended families have fewer friends because they give priority to family members.  The number 150 is an average, but there is a lot of variation.  The range of variation is somewhere between 100 and 250.”

Dunbar believes that social media has changed human interaction patterns, but chiefly in the realm of retaining contact with those who may have otherwise disappeared from our lives.

“Digital developments allow you to prevent relationships from decaying over time,” he says.  “But when you are not interacting face-to-face, when you aren’t actually getting together, these relationships will deteriorate.  I can find out what you had for breakfast today, but can I really get to know you better?  Relationships demand time.  They also demand touch –like hugs, handshakes, dancing or whatever.   I have always said a touch is worth 1,000 words.  Until we figure out how to have virtual touch, the internet is a problem for developing friendships.”

Asked about why we are limited to 150 close relationships, Dunbar says: “The answer is two-fold.  It’s a cognitive challenge to keep track of more people than that.  The other side of it has to do with time budgeting.  You don’t have time in everyday life to invest in each of those people — particularly on the internet. It’s interesting that we found in our research that the size of the typical community in hunter-gather societies was 150.  We live in larger communities today, but that 150 number still applies.”

Assuming Dunbar’s theories are correct, internet exchanges may not be as effectively relational as some would think.  Certainly not as relational as a phone call from Marcus or a note from Horchow.  But the cyberspace earthquake is here to stay—and it is a safe bet if Marcus and Horchow were alive and active today, they would be major digital players.

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