Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Dunbar's Number - Groups in Second Life

You've probably heard "Dunbar's number" tossed about recently with respect to social networks. I would venture that before social networks became the hot topic, Dunbar's number was referenced fewer than 150 times in any year since British anthropologist Robin I.M. Dunbar journaled it in 1992 (yes, his middle initials really are "I.M"). Today, there is probably at least one Dunbar meme running around - something like "What are 5 social networks in which you have more than 150 "friends"? (If someone knows of one, please drop a comment and share.)

Thanks to the evolution of snack sized media and information, the collective understanding of the Dunbar number is fueled by Gladwell, Watts, or Buchanan quotes, or even a Wikipedia snippet such as: "150 is the maximum number of people that can belong to group to maintain social relationships". These bits boil it down to a number and while technically correct, the implications of Dunbar's number are far more important that the absolute value and it is these that help us understand how we can improve social networking feature such as groups within Second Life.

Read Dunbar's famous paper "Co-Evolution of Neocortex Size, Group Size and Language In Humans", here. In case you don't, there are a few critical points (hint: these are crude notes, you really should read the paper):

  • The derivation of the "Dunbar number" is based field studies on primate group behavior and Dunbar's hypothesis that there is a correlation between relative neocortex size and group size.
  • Dunbar extrapolates from the measured primate data and the comparative size of the human cortex to reach a number of 147.8.
  • Dunbar extends his analysis to cultural and historical data that reinforces the "average" number of 150 for group size to include armies, nomadic tribes, terrorists, etc.
  • The number applies to groups with strong incentives to stay closely connected such as survival.
  • In order to maintain group cohesion, 42% of a person's time must be spent performing "social grooming", else the tenants of unstructured trust will not hold and the group will lose cohesion and group "rules" will not be followed, etc. And a hint from Dunbar as to how to address that dilemma: " My suggestion, then, is that language evolved as a "cheap" form of social grooming, so enabling the ancestral humans to maintain the cohesion of the unusually large groups demanded by the particular conditions they faced at the time."

Christopher Allen has extended Dunbar's paper in a 2004 blog post describing why he thought there was a misunderstanding of Dunbar's ideas based on a preoccupation with the absolute. It's a worthwhile read, as is the rest of his Life With Alacrity blog. He delivered a more concise presentation of his argument at IT Conversations in 2006 called The Dunbar Number, and I encourage you to download the briefing and listen to the recording as I will reference here to give some background.

From a modern world perspective and using social network analysis, Chris Allen hypothesizes that that different group sizes impact a group's behavior and their choice of processes and tools. Based on empirical data from MMOG and online communities, he suggests that for non-survival groups, the equivalent Dunbar number falls somewhere between 60-90.

Allen argues that group dynamics have more than just the Dunbar number as a break point; three group size nodes emerge and Allen provides some insight into the group construct as it relates to size. Groups with too few people suffer from insufficient critical mass, experience group think, are unable to sustain conversation and the infamous "Echo Chamber" effect is evident. Read some of Eric Rice's "Echo Chamber" analysis regarding the failings of artificially small groups, aka elites. Overly large groups have far much too noise and cannot sustain an equal and unstructured trust. Cliques and inappropriate politics emerge and social contracts start to break down. From a Second Life perspective, an example of this might be the recent Second Citizen forum meltdown. Note that it's the group size that creates the breakdown of the cohesive bonds, not the "newbs". When group sizes grow beyond these normalized sizes, even the most senior members of the group can suffer the ill effects.

Allen also hypothesizes that there is a correlation between group size and the level of group satisfaction in an interesting double humped graph where satisfaction peaks at levels of 5-8 and 50-70, with a devastating chasm in the middle between 9-25 people.

So what does this all have to do with Second Life groups? You mean it's not obvious?
One might assume that groups in Second Life should be the mechanism to allow people to communicate "easily" across virtual geography, to Dunbar's point about language (conversation) being a cheap way to meet the required 42% dosage of social grooming, they should be a relevant means by which the group can maintain cohesion. They might represent centers of affinity, and sub-cultures.

However, groups in Second Life aren't about group cohesion or social grooming, they are largely about announcements, group land, business updates and product releases - in other words, they are one-way push based communication channels. This is a critical need, but does not serve to build cohesion within the community. How many times have you seen someone chastised for chatting in a group IM? How often are the words "this is not the place for that discussion" or "this group is for announcements only - not chat", or my recent favorite, "no ones cares what you think"? This adopted use of the group function indicates that there are basic communication mechanisms missing with the Second Life platform that are necessary for cheap communication.

Groups in Second Life are often plagued with the "size matters" syndrome. How often have you heard an exuberant "my group passed 500 members"? The value of a 500 person group in Second Life is rarely more than an ego boost for the founding member, combined with some artificial strength in numbers false front. Groups of this size are effective in cases where there is a specific, goal oriented and tangible objective such as the Relay For Life, or to generate some short term flash mob behavior. And to Allen's point, groups of these size are destined to suffer from group dissatisfaction and disintegration. An example is the Live Music Enthusiasts group, aka LME. To a musician, LME offers the largest number of individuals to which to send notices for live performances, however this size is a bonus and a hindrance as it lacks moderation, the channel is far too noisy, and there is a general break down of the "social contract" - i.e. the group charter. As a result, small factions break off and form smaller groups.

This leads to the most debilitating group dysfunction, which is the limit of 25 groups. If you spend any amount if time in world, own group land, and/or have the audacity to have more than one interest, you spend your time juggling your group memberships, adding and leaving on a regular basis. This is not just frustrating, but does highlight a significant flaw in the platform services. The strength of community is the ability to support large numbers of subcultures and affinity groups, while still maintaining an overarching sense of the whole. This requires a set of tools that are accessible and useful for the uber-group interaction.

The most effective tools for large or uber-group interaction are discussion lists that are reputation-filtered, wikis or multi-author workspaces, public blogs and social networks. None of these work within the current world, but are necessary complements to maintain community cohesion. Linden failed to recognize this, even after the rash of complaints when many of the "official" Linden forum segments closed. The other forums that have gained audience are focused on maintaining their community, which tangentially relates to Second Life but does not serve to build community cohesion. The failings of
Second Life groups is largely why I spend time on Twitter catching up within my selected group of Second Lifers.

I tried to do some analysis of the bugs associated with groups in Second Life via Jira, which is why this post sat gathering dust for a week. I've given up, but I'd love to hear your perspective on groups and what changes could/should be made to Second Life to improve or establish some basic group functions.

Update#1: I could not make this up. Just hours after I finished this post, I got a group notice that said the following:
Please do not use group chat for communication.
Update #2: Hikkup was so successful in the last post, let's use it again. Click the link and sound off, or better yet - follow the lead and use the comments. What changes could/should be made to Second Life to improve or establish group cohesion?

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