100 Things You Should Know About People: #43 — People Expect Online Interactions to Follow Social Rules

Friends talking and laughting together
Photo Credit: Katie Ricard

When people interact with each other they follow rules and guidelines for social interaction. Here’s an example: Let’s say I go to a café and I see you sitting by the window. We know each other, and so I come up to you and say, “Hi Richard, how are you doing today?” I expect you to interact with me, and I expect that interaction to follow a certain protocol. I expect you to look at me, in fact to look me in the eye. If our previous interactions have been positive, then I expect you to smile a little bit. Next, you are supposed to respond to me by saying something like, “I’m fine. I’m sitting outside here to enjoy the beautiful weather.” Where the conversation goes next depends on how well we know each other. If we are just casual acquaintances we might wind down the conversation, “Well, enjoy it while you can, bye!” If we are close friends, then I might pull up a chair and engage in a longer conversation.

We have expectations of how the interaction will go — and if either of us violates the expectations, then we will get uncomfortable. For example, what if I start the conversation as above, with “Hi Richard, how are you doing today?” but you don’t respond. What if you ignore me? Or what if you won’t look at me? What if you say back, “My sister never liked the color blue”, and stare into space. Or perhaps you give me more personal information than our relationship warrants. Any of these scenarios would make me uncomfortable. I would probably try to end the conversation as soon as possible, and likely avoid interacting with you next time the opportunity arises.

Online interactions follow the same social rules — When people go to a website or use an online application, they have assumptions about how the website will respond to them and what the interaction will be like. And many of these expectations mirror the expectations that they have for person-to-person interactions. If the website is not responsive or takes too long to load, it is like talking to a person who is not looking at you, or is ignoring you. If the website asks for personal information too soon in the flow of the interaction, that is like the other person getting too personal. If the website does not save your information from session to session, that is like the other person not recognizing you or remembering that you have already established a relationship.

There are cultural expectations too — Different cultures have different expectations of social rules and interactions. In the US when I meet someone new I put out my hand for a handshake, but in other cultures a handshake would not be the normal social rule for meeting a new person. In the US it’s common to ask someone new that you meet “What do you do”, but in some cultures that would seem too personal. Similarly, if a website is not modified to meet the expectations of a particular culture (called localization of the website), then it will miss the mark because it will violate social rules of the target culture.

A new definition of social media? — Some people are saying that “social media” has reached its peak and is dying. But maybe the definition just needs to get broader. Is social media just about how to connect people together online? How to use online networking as a way to promote brands or products or services? Aren’t all online interactions really social interactions?If people expect their online interactions to follow the rules of social interactions, then isn’t something as simple as showing up at the home page of a website actually a social interaction. Is filling out a form at a government website to renew your automobile registration a social interaction?

What do you think? Should web designers think about the interactions that they are building as social interactions? Should they consider how to mirror person-to-person interaction? Would they design different interactions if they were thinking this way? Is this a new definition of  “social media”?

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #30 — Our "strong tie" group size is 150 people

Collage of facesEvolutionary anthropologists study social groups in animals. One question they have been trying to answer, is whether there is a limit on how many individuals different species have in their social group. Robin Dunbar studied the relationship between brain (neo-cortex) size and the number of stable relationships that a species had in their social groups. Based on his findings with animals, he extrapolated to what the number would be for humans. Called “Dunbar’s Number”, he postulated that 150 people is the social group size limit for humans. (To be more exact, he calculated the number at 148, but rounded up to 150. Also there is a fairly large error measure, so that the 95% confidence interval is from 100 to 230 – for you statistical experts out there).

A limit to stable, social relationships — The limit specifically refers to the number of people that you can maintain stable social relationships with. These are relationships where you know who the person is, and you know how each person relates to every other person in the group. Dunbar has documented the size of communities throughout different geographic areas and throughout different historical timeframes, and he is convinced that this number holds true.

Across time and cultures — Dunbar assumes that the current size of the human neocortex showed up about 250,000 years ago. So he started his research with hunter-gatherer communities.  His observations include: Neolithic farming villages averaged 150 people, as did Hutterite settlements, professional armies from the Roman days as well as modern army units.

Intense survival pressure — His claim is that 150 is the group size for communities that have a high incentive to stay together. If the group has intense survival pressure, then it stays at the 150 member mark. He also notes that these groups are usually in close physical proximity. If the survival pressure is not intense, or the group is physically dispersed, then he estimates the number would be lower.

Too high or too low? — Some critics of Dunbar’s number say that the number is too high, and others that it is too low. In the world of social media people have 750 facebook friends or 4,000 twitter followers, showing that the number of 150 is way off the mark. A Dunbar fan would respond that these are not the strong stable relationships where everyone knows everyone and people are in physical proximity. Some critics say the number of 150 is too high – that the number of people one is close to both physically and socially is much less than 150.

It’s the weak ties that are important?– In a recent blog post Jacob Morgan says that what’s really important in social media is not the strong ties that Dunbar talks about, but the weak ties – relationships that do not require that everyone knows everyone in the group, and that are not based on physical proximity. He argues that the reason that social media is so interesting is that it allows us to quickly and easily expand these “weak” ties, and that those are the ties that are most relevant in our modern world.

Substituting weak for strong — I think both Dunbar and Morgan are right. It’s critical that we pay attention to that 150 number for our “survival” community in close proximity. If we don’t feel we have that “tribe” near us it causes us to feel alienated, isolated and stressed. Perhaps one of the reasons social media is so popular, and so many of us rely on Facebook and Twitter is that we don’t have a strong tie tribe. Although the weak tie network of social media helps us to feel connected, we’ll eventually feel let down if we try to have it substitute for a strong tie Dunbar tribe.

For more information, I suggest you watch this interview of Robin Dunbar:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/video/2010/mar/12/dunbar-evolution

And read Jacob Morgan’s blog post:

http://www.socialmediatoday.com/SMC/169132

What do you think? Do you have a strong tie tribe network? Are you ultimately trying to substitute with your weak tie network? In our modern world is the weak tie network more important?

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