New social networks should be designed with more thought.
Here I will try to give an example on how using a sociological concept can inform the goals of a new social network.
Dunbar’s number is a sociology concept that may be very useful for designing social networks. Per Wikipedia, Dunbar’s number is « a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships ». There is extensive work on the subject, and people who already tried to understand how this concept relates to (cyber) social networks. A simple web search will give you plenty of information on this.
But ! Even if this concept has been studied somewhat extensively, in effect it seems that it has been ignored or misused by current dominating social networks.
Quality of social relationships
Let’s define a “good” social relationship as a one-on-one relationship where each participant gains something for each interaction. The gain could be knowledge, money, solving a problem, having a good time… Quantifying the gain depends on a set of values. For instance, money could be very important to some people, for other people it could be knowledge.
So qualifying a relationship as “good” or “better” than another relationship, depends on one’s values.
Let’s assume that most people want the security that comes with trust and knowing that you can count on someone. That people want to be helped when they have a problem. That people want to gain money and have a good time. And that they want to reciprocate all that. In roughly this order of priority.
The current social networks (Facebook, Twitter…) do not tick most of the boxes if we quantify social relationships this way. They mostly provide some entertainment, with a big dose of anxiety, outrage, and egotistic comparisons.
Dunbar’s number more or less refers to the maximum number of relationships that one can manage. Let us expand on the concept and give some hypotheses.
First that there is a limit on the social relationships that one can manage, and this limit is across all media and all types of relationships. Second that even “weak” relationships such as Facebook acquaintances “use up” part of Dunbar’s number, even if they use it less than very close relationships.
With these hypotheses, we could draw a comparison with a bucket.
One can manage at most 150 stable relationships (Dunbar’s number). This is the “relationships bucket”. One can fill up the bucket with 150 stable relationships at most, or maybe 50 stable relationships (those that demand more “work”) and 200 weak Facebook relationships, that demand less work, but still end up filling the bucket.
So, Facebook relationships can in some instances take the place of other relationships. Concretely Facebook relationships still require some time, some memory and attention. And studies tend to prove that new communication tools do not change Dunbar’s number.
But, Facebook relationships are mostly “low-quality” as we expressed it earlier. Of course one can have meaningful, rich relationships using Facebook, but it seems the exception more than the norm.
This is a big problem: Not only are current social network often toxic, but they also fill our “Dunbar’s Bucket”.
The way forward
What can help social networks provide quality relationships?
We can suppose that in real life, and historically, the most fruitful relationships are/were relationships either at the family level, or with geographically close people, such as relationships within a village, neighborhood, or city. Relationships with people that you can easily see in-person, to exchange ideas or goods, buy, sell, work together, do stuff together.
One way for (cyber) social networks to be really useful would be to nurture, develop, aid these local relationships, which are generally more on the “quality” side than long-distance relationships.
In this case, the software tools should be synergistic with real-life relations, they should not replace or diminish them.
Helping real-life local relationships is also a worthy goal and may reduce the alienation that can appear with the loss of the traditional “village community” in the face of urbanization and geographical mobility.
How could a social network help local relationships? Maybe by helping develop new interactions with people nearby. By providing software tools to help discovery, information sharing and management of interactions. With modern life, most of us have thousands of people living nearby (that you can meet with each traveling less than 30 minutes, say). But we do not know most of them. A social network platform should help us know these people, and have interactions that develop in “good” (as described above) relationships.
Social network should help bring down walls, enabling us to interact fruitfully with people we may not have met by ourselves. Quite the opposite of the current social networks with their bubble effects, feedback loops and groups of like-minded people that create walls in our heads…
The conclusion / sociology
This is an example of how taking a sociological view and exploring a sociological concept can be useful for finding the “why” and driving the design of a social networking platform. Currently sociology seems either ignored or misused. For instance the famous “aha” moments of Facebook and Twitter (when an used has a certain number of “friends” or “followers” and is “hooked”) may have underlying causes in Dunbar’s number or a similar concept, but it is only seen through a psychological/behavioral view, and is only used as a metric, a goal to reach to have addicted users.
Sociology can and should be a tool for designing better social networks, and having clearer, better goals besides amassing users and monopolizing their attention.