My Hunter-Gatherer Social Experiment With Facebook

I've long written on this blog along these lines: we evolved to account for the values and actions of about 30 other individuals. The corollary: at that level, each individual has a real potential to influence the collective action of the entire group, should it be important enough to undertake.

And the general social corollary is that this does not scale to 230 Facebook friends, a half million citizens in your "tight knit" community, 300 million Americans...or, what, 7 billion Earth inhabitants? ...Hunter-gatherers might not scoff outright at the idea of voting, per se. But I'm pretty sure they'd scoff at it being secret and anonymous (no personal accountability), but then they're bound to it.

...I had pretty much come to hate Facebook. Many do anyway, but usually for different reasons than I. That runs the gamut from the envy over Zuckerberg's smashing billionaire success—to now gloating over the not-so-pretty public stock offering—to the constant hand wringing over privacy issues (that's the price you pay if you want free), to silly butthurt complaints about how their free service is configured, and the changes they make when they want to make them.

I signed up for Facebook way back when it went from college students only, to public. The strategy and timing of that, the elements involved in it, really ought to make a pretty interesting business book, I'd think. ...I signed up, did nothing with it for well over a year, began hearing the buzz, and started using it. It's a love/hate thing, as I suppose most good relationships are—because at least it's passion, heads or tales, and not indifference—which really, really sucks.

I don't think I ever acquired over 100 friends, and since FB is mutual, unlike Google+, that seemed reasonable. I have an FB page for this blog with almost 3,500 "fans," and a Twitter feed, with almost 5,000 followers. But in spite of stating on my About Page and elsewhere, that my personal FB is only for friends and family I know in realspace, I still get a number of friend requests per week I have to ignore. I used to take the time to send a "sorry" message—directing folks to the FTA Page instead—but I just don't have the time or desire anymore. Sorry.

...So, let's get to the thinking part, eh? Does anyone really have 100 friends? I mean, true friends in at least some very important context; that is, people with whom you keep up on all important details and events of their lives, attend every function you can, and they yours; or, perhaps someone with whom you might have some extraordinary, unique affinity that will always be present? How about 230? 450, 500 and on up, as I see on many FB profiles?

Or do you cheap and fake out? Do you accept their friend requests, then hide all their posts—rendering the whole thing a white-scam that diminishes you? What happens when they ask you in a phone conversation, an in-person meeting, an email, or even a personal FB message what you think of their FB contributions, or this post or that post? Or, will that never happen anywayand, I've made my point?

For far too long I've put up with stuff on Facebook that was of no interest to me. I won't bore you with the details. Everyone who's ever been on it on it knows what I mean. Essentially, we need a concise word for UltraBanal. And, I suppose that would go for me, too, in the eyes of some...which is fine—this is a two-way deal. After all, it comes to a point where, other than some nebulous mutual acquaintance, friend of a friend, a family member or "friend" you wouldn't otherwise see inside of 20-year spaces—or whatever—it's just not at all prescient. It's irrelevant. Which means: it really doesn't mean much of anything to you. Not...really.

So what do you do? You scroll through...scroll, scroll, scroll...and you're looking for rare nuggets. Well, how about stop digging for gold and think about what you're trying to do?

Where do you find them, those nuggets? ...How about you do a little data analysis? What if you recorded each time you click "Like," or you comment, or you post on someone's wall, etc? See how many people that is, and who they are. As a secondary experiment, record which people click "Like" on yours posts, comment, post on your wall, etc. Compare the two lists. Wanna guess how it might come out in terms of correspondence?

For me, since I already had only about 100 FB friends, I kinda winged it and just began the culling operation. I cut my friends list down to 29. This morning when I got up, I went to Facebook, and I had an epiphany. I kinda loved it. I had a great time, really. Virtually every post was something of interest to me. It was easy to click on the "Like" a few times, drop a few comments—all in the worthwhile endeavor of supporting and celebrating those closest to me,—friends and family. ...Real friends, family that are as good as friends—because you choose your friends, not your family.

Anyone else want to give it a shot or, if you've stayed away from FB for whatever reason, give it a try under that basis: 30-50 friends, and not a single friend more? See how it goes?

As a final aspect to consider, isn't it odd that human beings have socially developed such complex ways to place friends and family into hierarchies over millennia? Well, no, it isn't odd at all. It's a function or response to how we evolved as social beings to begin with. We simply aren't adapted to the notion or practicality of keeping up with the waxes and wanes of hundreds of other individuals with separate lives, and you know what? I think that's perfect.

Why? Because no matter what, there will still only be 24 hours in any given day.

Comments

  1. Alisha says:

    Thank you for this. I had been thinking along these lines and actually had a conversation about this very subject this past weekend. This has spurred me to reconsider FB, etc, and what it is that I want out of it and what I don’t.

  2. I’m not doing Facebook because people already have the following ways to communicate with me

    Office phone
    Cell phone
    Office mail
    Home mail
    Office fax
    Federal Express
    Serious Email account
    Not-serious Email account

    I have reached my limit of availability. Checking all that crap once a day or several times a day is just too much, so if you can’t get hold of me using any of the methods described above, put a message in a bottle. People existed for a long time without communicating with each other on an hourly basis.

  3. It kinda misses the point, rob. My post wasn’t at all about my business life and all the similar ways people have to contact me on business levels.

  4. I am in agreement with economist Tyler Cowen, who accepts friendship requests from everyone. Facebook allows me to expand my social network past the people I am already close to. It allows me to connect to and learn from people well outside my “tribe”. I consider that a strength of Facebook.

    I do use the FB Purity filter, but not for people. My filters take out post types that are inherently noisy (eg: X was tagged) and they remove posts that have keywords I have no interest in reading (politics, sports).

    • MAS

      Yea, but for all that, I have my blog that gets thousands of comments a month, every one of which I read, I have Twiiter, and eve n though I only follow 90 and have almost 5k followers, most real action is with those who tag me in a tweet and I always pay attention to that, and I have my FB page for the blog with 3,500 fans a nd while it doesn’t get tons of action, that’s my fault. Now that I have reduced my overhead, I might just be more active there.

      In short, FB is a cool tool that I wanted to make personal and useful. Now it is.

  5. Lute Nikoley says:

    Strange how we both thought of doing this on the same day. Great minds think alike.

  6. Great that you’ve found a way to use Facebook that make it meaningful to you. I honestly can’t understand some peoples complaints about how FB makes your life visible to everyone, how people have too many friends, or maybe the most common, complaint about what other people are writing about (usually their dinner, their dog or their babies latest adventures).
    I find that I am pretty much completely in charge of my own FB experience, of what content I choose to write or upload, and which people I connect with. I like FB (I even like the new timeline).
    I like the fact that I can have access to just about everyone in my life in one and the same place, especially those people who are not family or close friends (since I connect with them on the phone or face to face anyway). Therefor I’m not a big fan of Google+ and other similar services, since it will eventually force people (me) to either switch social network or sign up for another one.
    Everything and everyone in one place. That I like.

  7. Phocion Timon says:

    I never acquired many friends, mostly just family but it still got to be a pain in the ass. It’s amazing how boring people can be in such a setting, especially females.

    I got rid of that account and created another using a fake name and throw-away email from Yahoo. I now use Facebook as a one-stop site to keep tabs on the blogs in which I am interested, instead of spending time going from blog to blog, seeing if a new post is up and if it is interesting.

    • gallier2 says:

      You could use rss feeds in your email client. Works a charm especially for slow update blogs.

      • Phocion Timon says:

        @gallier2:

        Yeah, I thought of that but Facebook does have one redeeming value: free ebooks. There are several Facebook pages that notifies of free ebooks for one’s Kinde. I find that rather handy. I figure why not peruse the free ebook offerings plus see what the blogs are saying all in one site.

  8. Monica Hughes says:

    Yes, yes, yes.

    I have gone on several spontaneous Facebook fasts in the past and found them very liberating. But I do like keeping up with certain people. Maybe I just need to cut the friends list WAY down.

  9. Heather says:

    Thank you! I knew I couldn’t be alone in my feeling that I just don’t give a shit what most other people are doing. You’ve given me an evolutionary excuse :)

    I’ve always been perplexed by the notion that my friends text each other near daily and keep hundreds of non-friends on their FB just so they have access to the details of their life, and seem to spend a lot of time talking about people rather than ideas.. I am way too busy building the life I want, reading, learning, generally doing things that enrich me, to ever keep up with all that. Besides, I don’t need to; they fill me in on all the pertinent gossip once or twice a month! Maybe I have misanthropic tendencies, but I prefer to think I just have a very low tolerance for bullshit and silly games people play to keep themselves entertained.

  10. gallier2 says:

    One question to ask to know if someone is a friend or not is: would you attend his funeral or do you think he would attend yours?

  11. I’m building a network of like minded “friends”, so I find going through the mess worth the rewards. For example I am friends with a regular top commenter/contributor to Nassim Taleb’s Fan page, and seeing his everyday discussions with friends is extremely enlightening every time I get the pleasure of reading one. He has an incredible mind, and Nassim is regularly Liking his comments and engaging. There is something about a casual conversation from an enlightened mind that is not present in a book, or a blog post, or an article, it is unpolished. I see it as similar to how the comments on many blog posts are often as informative or more than the post itself. This is a viewpoint I would never see unless I was friends with him, but I don’t know him personally and likely will never meet him.

    • Agreed.

      In my case, I still wanted my list to be in the 30 person range so it mean I had to make some choices. Two of the friends I retained are Internet friends from way back, like for 15 years (USENET, etc). They do a lot of political commentary, are well read, interesting, etc. I have met both in person, but they aren’t local and I don’t see them often. But they both have pretty vibrant comment threads so I get just enough of that sort of thing.

  12. Richard: “Hunter-gatherers might not scoff outright at the idea of voting, per se. But I’m pretty sure they’d scoff at it being secret and anonymous (no personal accountability), but then they’re bound to it.”

    There was an agreement between Roosevelt and Stalin that free elections would be held in Europe after the second world war. Stalin held his promise. He did not promise to hold secret elections. Thus people knew who they should vote if they wanted to survive.

    The secrecy of the elections was the difference between the Western Democracies and the Eastern Dictatorships. Surely, even an anarchist would rather live in a democracy as in a dictatorship.

    • Victor:

      I meant that in the context of an H-G band of appropriate evolutionary size.

      • Okay, given your reputation, I thought is was another stab at democracy. Anyway, at H-G scale, anarchy, (grassroots) democracy and even communism are hard to distinguish.

        Still, even in small groups holding secret election can be advantageous, especially about people. When voting in secret people dare to vote for the leader they think best. If you vote in the open, you are more likely to vote for the person you think will win, which is often the incumbent. Even for the current leader it may be better to have a secret vote, as it would warn in time of dwindling support.

      • “Anyway, at H-G scale, anarchy, (grassroots) democracy and even communism are hard to distinguish.”

        Indeed. We are social animals and so various forms of socialism, per se, are not unnatural. It’s the scaling of it to far beyond the evolutionary norm that creates the problem.

  13. Michelle says:

    I think everybody has different goals for Facebook. My primary goal for Facebook is to use it as a one-stop address book. I feel a lot of comfort deep down that, once I have somebody added on Facebook, I will be able to get in touch with them in ten years from now when I happen to be passing through town or something random makes me think of them and I want to say hi.

    I have about 175 friends on Facebook. Of these, a solid half are people who I have been really close to at one point in life, and for the most part genuinely really like. At least a third of those are family, and the other two thirds friends. I have been in school for the last, oh, 20+ years, and when you count friends from highschool, friends from college, friends from grad school, and now, friends from my new home, plus a huge family, that’s a lot of people. Another 25% of my Facebook contacts are people I genuinely want to keep in touch with (either for networking purposes or because I really like them even though we’re not very close), and there are only about 25% that are duds (people I know, but am not particularly close to, and would probably never really want to get in touch with again – at the time they were probably a co-worker, friend of a friend, team mate, etc.).

    I don’t really use Facebook as a social experience – I don’t have time for that (or rather, make time for that). I upload photo albums. I look at photo albums from people I care about. Every once in a while I send a message or write a wall post. And when I’m in the mood, a few times a week, I’ll scan my home page for misc. updates from people just for kicks, or check out a few people’s walls to see what’s up with their life. As such, I don’t feel the need to cull it down. On the contrary, I want to make sure I add all the people in my life that I care about (and occasionally avoid friend requests from people I really don’t want to associate with or don’t know). I could see how this would be different if one had different goals for Facebook.

    • Michelle says:

      I meant to say, I agree that one can only really maintain friendships with 20-50 people at any given time (though I have known a few special people who seem to stay close to 100+ people because they invest a lot of energy in this pursuit). However, many of my Facebook contacts have been in that group of 20-5o at one point in time – they’re just not anymore. This at least enables me to keep them in my peripheral friendship circle.

      • I certainly agree that the collection of 30-50 people would naturally change over time. Add some, drop some, etc.

        My purpose is not that I don’t care or I dislike others, just that, at least for me, 30 or so seemed to be around the number I happened to interact with the most. I didn’t even set out to make it 30. I just started unfriending all but those I have some interaction with and low and behold, when I was done I had 29 FB friends left.

  14. jay jay says:

    I’ve been off and on with FB several times over the last 3-4 years. I’ve finally settled into a groove of about 250-300 “friends” as a sweet spot for me. Been as high as 600 at one point. I don’t use it everyday, but 3-4 times a week, usually.

    I only enjoy frequent interaction with a few true/traditional friends. But I’ve come to derive a lot of enjoyment and even enlightenment by following the lives of others, especially those in other cultures and other parts of the world. I’ve got a bunch of international “friends” who I’ve met through my various jobs and travels over the years, and I love watching them, and vice versa, I suspect.

    I’ve always been a “people watcher”. Not in the voyeuristic way (mostly…. ;) ), but in studying the actions and interactions of the human animal. Facebook is the best tool I’ve found for that.

    So it’s not so much my interactions with others that drive my interest, but more in watching how other folks interact with each other.

  15. To each his own. I use Facebook to mainly keep tabs on my grand babies and my kids, blogs I like, links I like, dance videos posted, free the animal notifications and my old high school friends from Mex (who I wouldn’t be in contact with if it wasn’t for Facebook) Isn’t that what it is for? If you are over burdened with content, there is an off switch.

  16. Last year I did a massive cull of “friends” from Facepalmbook, my rule was that if you weren’t someone I consider to be in my life for life (ie, family or 10+ year friends) and didn’t catch up with me for a beer now and then, I don’t care about your day-to-day stuff.

    In the end though I gave social media away altogether (for the most part) for a slightly different reason – I found myself falling victim to a growing validation-seeking mindset.

    IE, every status update, every tweet, every check-in… I’d do it and not even realise that the main compulsion was a thought process such as “what will my “friends” or “followers” think?’, and it made me kinda ill to think about. One day I was just wandering around and considered dropping in somewhere for a beverage simply because my “friends” would love to hear about it. Then my rational brain kicked in and just said ‘fuck off, they might “like” it, but they really don’t give a shit beyond that – are you doing it because YOU want to, or because you want your “friends” to see you doing it?’.

    And with that, I just deleted all the apps and stopped posting. I still interact if someone rattles my cage, but I haven’t read Twitter feeds since 2010, and I quit Facepalmbook and Foursquare a few months ago. Feels good man.

  17. Well, whether it’s fire, the wheel, or social media any technology is only as good as the use you have for it. Personally I like the shallow but broad nature of FB and other social media. FB is useful to me precisely because it does allow me to maintain some connection with people I still like, but not enough to actually talk to them on the phone; members from my WoW guild, the guy who made my flute, my douchebag cousin, etc. Some close friendships have been rekindled since we originally drifted away and some closer friendships have been forged since we have a tool that lets us share our thoughts easily and asynchronously.

  18. Google “Dunbar’s Number”.

  19. Elenor says:

    I only go by Facebook every several weeks. I have maybe 100 “friends” — although most aren’t actually, and many of them I put on “ignore” because I don’t care about what they’re doing. However, for my neighbors and arranging pool parties or cul-de-sac parties — it’s pretty good, although email works well too. On the rare occasions when I swing by, I can see what the neighbor’s kids are doing, where they’ve traveled, and so on. It’s a version of “over the backyard fence chat” — which we almost never get to do in person. Same with my sisters — we rarely talk, but have a version of keep-in-touch by reading what the others post (well, mainly the oldest one posts, we other two just read…).

    Folks I knew in H.S. — yeah, okay-fine — most of them I have on ignore — but since I’m trying to track down one or two folks I knew back then, it’s useful to be able to “broadcast” to a bunch of folks from H.S. to see if someone knows something current/recent.

    I’m baffled by the folks who play Facebook games or spend hours chatting and commenting on pix. (But then, I’m even more baffled by folks who are in their 40s and 50s and still madly and passionately attached to their COLLEGES, fer cryin’ out loud!! I went to college to get a degree — got it — and now I’m done, thanks very much! (Far-distant/other state meet-ups? Alumni associations? College-related credit cards?!?! Baffling.)

  20. I had to quit FB. It was damaging my ‘real’ friendships. Because even people I knew to be cool and smart were posting endless streams of mind-numbing trivialities, futile politicizing, unearned narcissism and reguritated jokes and affirmations. I was starting to feel contempt and judgement for them.

    Sure, there are needles in the haystack. But for the most part, FB is an infinite conveyor belt of untenable tedium and regurgitation that will lead anthropologic aliens of the future to conclude that humans, were, in fact, the most boring fucking life forms to have ever existed.

    • Ha, Susan. Yep. Laf. Choose wisely and don’t be afraid to switch things up.

    • Susan Not to be a wet rag, well…ok. I will……maybe it’s your friends? :) Maybe time for new ones? Ok. I have a few friends like that, but….ok, I do have a lot of friends like that….but what the hell. It’s only Facebook and my life doesn’t revolve around it. What’s wrong with a little narcissism once in awhile?

  21. It could be coincidence, though I doubt it, but since not having signed into facebook in over a month I’ve been so happy and (relatively) stress free. That and the “hunting” for a new comment on facebook doesn’t exist anymore.

    If I ever go back, I’ll be culling right out of the gate.

  22. Ron Scott says:

    Great post Richard, I found it really interesting.

    My intent for facebook has been to keep a database of everyone I’ve ever met. I’d say I’m around 80%?

    I can check in from time to time to see how people’s lives have developed, without ever having to actually communicate with or see them.
    As far as scrolling through the feed trying to find a rare nugget though? I’m with ya there. It can be quite deterring sometimes.
    One of my other intents in terms of facebook usage has been to keep the windows of opportunity open. Maybe one day I’ll be in need of a job or a service that some old high school acquaintance might be able to provide me, or maybe the other way around.
    I dunno, just some thoughts…

  23. Richard and other commentators, a few things to keep in mind:

    1. You are a public personality. You already get the “peripheral’ interaction from commentators and twitter as you yourself said. For those without a massive following, facebook is a good way for that kind of peripheral interaction.

    2. While Richard is still on FB, I too often see people “quitting” Facebook or social-media all-together. That’s a mistake. It’s good to keep with the times and be aware of how people are communicating. This can be useful even for business or professional reasons. You don’t want to be someone who doesn’t know how Twitter works. It might work for a 70 year old Senator on his fourth term, but that’s not most people.

    That said, I think we all agree the use of Facebook should be proactive. A periodic culling is good, and it’s good advice to censor one’s feeds. The way Facebook is setup now, you don’t have to subscribe to everyone, so you can see feeds from certain people. I cull my list periodically, and so it’s usually always a good 175-225 people or so.

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