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The Advantage of Small Online Social Networks


I recently had an interesting online experience. I've been involved with several online social networks for a few months now. I'm new to social networking, because as an introvert, I'm generally more interested in ideas and things than specific groups of people. My non-work-related pursuits have been mostly solitary, because most individuals take too much of my time for too little reward. It's not that I don't like people in general. I enjoy some very much. Everyone else, I like in smaller doses. I prefer one or two deep friendships to a larger number of shallow ones.

Anyway, I joined a small online social network about a month ago. I won't say which one for reasons that will become obvious shortly. I was initially attracted to this network by the new technology it employs. However, as I engaged with the group to get some of my questions answered, I began to enjoy the exchange of other ideas and began to get involved in those conversations also. Even though people don't use their real names on this network, so I have no way of ever knowing them in real life, I began to engage with and be entertained by their personalities as well as their ideas. Some of their ideas were profound, some would have been insulting to most people, and some were just hilarious. Absolutely no moderation occurs on this social network, so people are free to say whatever they please. I didn't agree with a lot of their thinking, but I appreciated being part of a small forum where people feel free to express their honest opinions, no matter how outlandish.

The personalities in the group are even more entertaining than their ideas. Personality clashes often lead to heated discussions, often with hilarious comments. Some individuals are highly authority and society averse, yet they want to spread this gospel to anyone who will listen. Others are generally trying to be as helpful as possible. Yet others are angry most the time. Some seem conservative and others liberal. Some don't like women; others are women. Part of the beauty of this is that people can have heated arguments without the possibility coming to blows. I have already witnessed one death threat, a rather detailed one, but three days later both parties were talking again--both still alive. Perhaps these kinds of interactions are nothing new to long-time social network users, but I haven't had much experience in this realm.

Recently, I encountered a minor technical problem that prevented me from being able to add my comments to the forum, but I could still see everything everyone was writing. I took advantage of the situation to search back through a few years of old posts for answers to more of my questions. Reading through these conversations until late into the night, I came across some very interesting ones. In one post, an autistic woman announced that she was now out of the mental institution where she had apparently been held for observation. Later, I came across her again. I'm not sure if it was chronologically before or after, but in this post she had just been admitted into a mental institution. She told the group how glad she was that the place had wifi, so she could stay in touch. Among other things, I was fascinated that she was able to stay in contact under these circumstances. She told the group how worried she was that she might not be released this time. One of the group members tried to comfort her by telling her that she had a very good chance of getting out if she could stay calm, be sociable, and act as normal as possible.

Let me cut into this narrative to say one thing. You will not get this stuff on Reddit or other social networks where millions of people post news articles and cat videos. Reading the exchange between this woman and the rest of the group was almost like curling up with a good novel on a cold winter's night, except this was real life happening in real time (or at least it was originally in near real time). This is a real person with problems reaching out to her online friends, despite the fact that she probably doesn't even know their true names. I know the objections people generally have about these types of relationships--that they aren't real, like the face-to-face kind. My response to that criticism is, who cares? This woman was obviously getting some comfort and support by conversing with her online friends at a time when she needed them. Would critics say it would have been better for her to be completely alone during this harrowing experience? I hope not. To make a long story short, she did get out. I haven't seen numerous posts from her recently, but she is still posting.

Her story is only one of many that I've been reading on this forum. Another was a kid in Britain who was attending a boarding school that made me think of North Korea. The school actually had a computer security staff to prevent the kids from going to whatever websites the school didn't want them to go to, which from the sound of it, was apparently most of the internet. From his descriptions of their efforts, it appeared that the staff was rather good at their jobs. Despite this, he did manage to get through to us to ask for advice about how to safely get more internet access, and he received some thoughtful responses. Then, there are the Russians telling us what it's like to be living under Putin as Russia begins to cordon off its internet from the rest of the world. Individuals living in China are discussing some of the technical difficulties they're encountering getting around China's "great wall", the term many people now use for China's internet blockade. Some of this is nearly spy-novel quality stuff, and it is coming from real people who, for the most part, seem unafraid to tell us what is happening to them in their countries and how they feel about it. I haven't been so in touch with events in that part of the world since a friend went to an orphanage in the Ukraine in the late '90's to adopt a baby. Let me tell you, from the things he told me, the Ukraine was a terrifying place back then.

While Reddit and other giant social networks are posting news stories about current events around the world, our group is engaging in conversations with the members of the group who are dealing with it. The point I'm making with this article is that, because this is a small social network where people "know" each other, they are more open to having conversations about what is happening to them.

A British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar proposed, based on extrapolating from studies on non-human primates, that humans have a limit to the number of people with whom they are capable of maintaining stable social relationships. This has become known as Dunbar's number. Dunbar proposed that this number for humans is about 150 individuals. You can read about this on Wikipedia, so I won't go into the details. It will be enough for the purposes of this article to says that, as human beings, we are unable to have stable inter-personal relationships with more than about 150 people. In other words, we can't say that we really "know" more than about 150 people at a time. Read the Wikipedia article if you aren't clear about what I mean by "know".

This limit to the number of people that humans are capable of "knowing" at any given time is why we generally don't get to know individuals on very large online social networks. Our attention is held by news stories and posts, not by people. On small social networks, we are far more likely to interact with individuals as people. Stories become to us more about individuals than about news events--although they are about that too. Many in our group who are aware of this make clear their desire to keep the group small. Although we are able to connect to each other in a more personal way on small online social networks, this connection may be more shallow than with people we work with, go to school with, live with, and see in the physical world every day, but it is still a social connection. So, I'm not suggesting that we should dump our close friends, spouses, and family members and find a small online social network instead. I'm only saying that our small social network seems to fulfill some part of our group's need for a social connection that can't be fulfilled on large social networks. This connection is a good thing, especially in the absence of anyone else to connect with while inside the walls of a mental institution.

I'm somewhat saddened by the thought of the technology behind our small social network catching on. I know more people coming into our group will change the way we interact with each other. I'm not looking forward to that, but some things in life can't be avoided. In our modern society, it is very difficult to keep long-term friends--especially if you're an itinerant engineer.



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