The Psychology and Anthropology of Social Networking.

In this article, we speak to Professor Robin Dunbar, Head of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford about the psychology and anthropology of social networks, together with their impact on human behaviour and the structure of our society.

For over a century, the phrase “social network” has been used to describe social structures made of nodes (individuals or organisations) which are tied by one or more specific types of interdependency such as values, visions, ideas, financial exchange, friendship, interests, conflict or trade.

Social Networking services have been around since the inception of the web. Usenet, Arpanet and LISTSERV were early examples of the technology, which then went onto create communities such as “The Well”, “Geocities” and “Tripod” (where rather than just bulletin boards, people could communicate through chat-rooms, and through their own personal pages (a precursor to the ‘Blog’).

Over the past twenty years, this concept has evolved, taking advantage of the huge changes in global communications and technology to the point where web based social networking services such as Linkedin, Facebook, Myspace and the like are a method by which hundreds of millions of people communicate and interact every day, globally.

According to Facebook’s own statistics (as at April 2009), they have more than 200 million active users, more than 100 million of which use the site daily, and together upload more than 850 million photos a month, over a billion pieces of content a month, and interact through over 25 million active groups, and 2.5 million events. These figures are growing rapidly, as many more join “The Conversation” (which consists of over 200 ‘significant’ online social networks). With emerging markets gaining more wealth and connectivity, there is a good chance that within a fairly short timeframe, billions of people worldwide will use social networking sites to communicate instantly, effortlessly, across the world.

Academics and commentators have understandably become interested in social networks, and their impacts to society. In 1916, L.J. Hanifan (in context of rural schools) discussed the concept of Social Capital, defining it as, “..that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit… The individual is helpless socially, if left to himself… If he comes into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors” more recently, a 2006 Forrester Report about social computing used the term “groundswell” to refer to “a spontaneous movement of people using online tools to connect, take charge of their own experience, and get what they need-information, support, ideas, products, and bargaining power–from each other.”

View Interviewee Biographies

In a privileged interview, I spoke to Professor Robin Dunbar Head of the “Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology” at the University of Oxford to learn more about the psychology, anthropology and behavioural aspects of social networking sites.Professor Dunbar graduated with a BSc in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Psychology from the University of Bristol. He has held research fellowships at Cambridge and Liverpool Universities, and teaching posts at the University of Stockholm, University College London, and the University of Liverpool. He is currently Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology in the School of Anthropology, and a Fellow of Magdalen College. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1998. He is co-Director of the British Academy’s Centenary Research Project ‘Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain’ , a multi-disciplinary project involving, in addition to the University of Oxford, research groups at Liverpool University, Royal Holloway (University of London), Southampton University, and the University of Kent.

[Vikas Shah] Why are people drawn to social-networking sites?

[Professor Dunbar] “We can see an early example when the mobile phone took off. Networks presumably saw SMS (texting) as a way of communicating information, but had no idea that people would use it to keep in contact so much, almost trivially. The bottom line is that this goes back to the fact that, like all primates, we are an intensely social species, and having our friends, cohorts, and acquaintances close is important to our general success. In these senses “keeping the wheels oiled” is critical, hence why we like gossip, and hence why biographies and fiction so wildly outsell anything else in the books market.

Modern society, specifically the modern economy, is very mobile. Our friendships and social networks become very quickly dispersed. At any one time, we build friendships and relationships with people and, for example, due to work, move on. If we look at the archetypal user (late teens and early twenties), they go to university for three years, have a great time building relationships, and at the end of this period they disperse all over the world and so are left, as individuals “stranded”. The ability to maintain these relationships online has driven heavy usage.

The sociality side exists with intense social networks, with a lot of time typically invested in these relationships. If you imagine the archetypal social environment we have, probably until the beginning of the twentieth century, we saw our network, our community, every day. If a relative emigrated, we lost track of them very quickly and the family link disappeared as it was a very “up front” person to person relationship. Online, we can maintain these relationships and keep them going, but you have to “say something” (i.e. participate in the conversation rather than just sitting and reflecting).”

[Vikas Shah] Sites such as “facebook” and “twitter” allow people to communicate their current ‘status’ to their network and beyond (i.e. what are they doing right now?) what is the significance of this? And why do people find it important to communicate this information?

[Professor Dunbar] “I’m conscious of a project we are involved in, with mobile phones, in which our data (albeit without final analysis) appears to show there are huge difference between the sexes and how they maintain relationships. If you go away from home (to university, for example) your relationships with friends do decay in time. Phones have helped to slow that decay considerably, but there is a big difference in how males and females service these relationships. With males, its about “doing stuff” and making arrangements rather than chatting on the phone (e.g. I’ll be back in Newcastle, shall we go for a beer, etc). With females, it’s the conversation which slows the rate of decay.

If you are to assemble a group and observe, it is clear that while females just start talking, the males will stand around looking at each other and eventually a conversation may strike up. There is something about the female psyche which is intensely social, and the most trivial conversations become part of the process of bonding. This perhaps is what causes the difference in message in sms, facebook, etc. They may appear trivial (e.g. I’m here, doing this) but there will be a lot more un-stated below the surface (i.e. I’m here talking to YOU and I’m happy to be talking to you rather than someone else) A form of commitment.

It is true, also, that people don’t realise that what they put onto these sites is going to all and sundry. When they hit the keyboard, they are mainly talking to one or two individuals, and often don’t realise how public their conversation is (paradigm: people on trains on phones talking loudly if the other party is a long way away). We have a face to face conception which is clear from texting studies we have done, which show that some ‘kids’ send, on average, 120sms messages a day, with 90%+ going to only two people.”

[Vikas Shah] When considering the capabilities of humans to maintain stable social relationships (referring to Dunbar’s number) we see that in social-networking environments, people maintain many hundreds of links, often spread across multiple networks? How do you think this will impact the quality and nature of relationships we build now and in the future?

[Professor Dunbar] “The great questions hovering at the back of the techie’s minds (who produce mobile phones and software for social networks) involve the fact that our relationships are constrained, in life, by a number of things. Generally you can only do one thing at a time (a cognitive constraint). Software cuts through these issues, and allows people to create a larger network. It turns out, though, very clearly, that our social networks are no larger in virtual worlds than in reality. The people you have on your network are the people you would typically keep into contact with in reality, face to face. The difference is, though, that you get lots of “hangers on” appearing on your network (e.g.: your friends mum). This has clearly created problems which facebook, for example, have answered by creating restrictions you can apply to your profile.

[…On Dunbar’s Number] You have to see this in the context of layers. You are surrounded by an endless series of expanded layers of social networks. Your inner core is 5, which extends to 50-150, 500 and eventually out to around 1500. As you go out through the networks, the number of people included increases, the average quality of these relationships declines. 150 (Dunbar’s Number) corresponds, seemingly, to those who you know as persons (i.e. if you bumped into them in a bar in Hong Kong at 3am, you wouldn’t feel embarrassed saying hello because you have a personal history and knowledge). This “outer layer” is heavily populated by extended kin (i.e. individuals who are only their because of a kinship relationship such as grannies, cousins, etc). Once you get beyond this layer, you drop off from personal knowledge, to categories. It is no surprise that some people can have enormous facebook type networks which tap into these outer layers. You see, though, that even with these huge networks, their interactions are typically with their inner layers rather than the “clouds” of periphery, many of whom are not active participants and may drift in and out of networks.”

[Vikas Shah] Many have argued that maintaining relationships electronically has a negative impact on society, what are your views on this?

[Professor Dunbar] “There are “Pros” and “Cons”. The “Pros” are that you can maintain relationships with otherwise would simply have died off (a timescale which can potentially take years). The analogy is where you go and meet people you haven’t seen for twenty years, you know who they are, and can put a name to a face, but at this stage, you don’t have much in common. You are happy to meet them at, say, a school reunion, and spend an evening or part of an evening, but even though you may say “we must keep in touch” chances are, that with the exception of a few strong re-ignited relationships, you wont.

It seems, to me, that relationships are face to face things. There is no point in having a virtual relationship if you are never going to see those individuals again as it crowds your “mental boxes”. To think of this in context, they are real cognitive limits. You may have the ability to maintain “x” relationships (the boxes) and the more you maintain, the more you preclude your ability to form new relationships. We see this with people who become obsessed (e.g. stalkers). Their obsession may be with an existing or past relationship, and it consumes them so much, they cannot step back, let it drop, and form new relationships. The risk, here, is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Social networking sites are a great way to keep in contact with people, but some people are going to make the mistake of getting too wrapped up. If, for example, your best friend moves to the other side of the world, there may be desperation, on both sides, to stay in touch, even though both are developing new relationships, and networks.

The other side is very clear, with email in particular, that it is very easy to hit the keyboard and send without thinking (“Flaming”). This has seen many people becoming badly unstuck. It is not just realising that you are broadcasting to the public domain, but the fact that you react in a way that you would never react face to face, this is very destructive. One of our projects set-up a discussion group to look at this phenomenon (note that all participants understood they were part of an experiment). The dynamics of the group quickly showed that one person in particular emerged who upset the dynamics. We also see this with road rage where, in the safety of your metal shell, you fly off the handle, and by the time you step out of the car, it’s too late.

In context, if you were walking down the street, you would not, in general, have reacted in quite the same way. A lot of our response in conversation picks up facial expressions, tone of voice and so forth. Emoticons simply do not substitute for this and cannot pick up these nuances. The other end of this dimension is where you see people declaring “undying love” after only a few email exchanges. In real life, it can be a figment of their imagination; you would never do that as you pick up on many more non-verbal signals. The removal of these signals, which make us cautious, is part of the problem.”

[Vikas Shah] What is the significance of “memes” and their physical counterparts such as flash-mobs?

[Professor Dunbar] “It is an interesting question, and a bizarre phenomenon. Why would people all turn up for something they know nothing about? We do that as part of our natural social world with “in-group” and “out-group”.

In a curious way, it looks like that we are seeing the outcome of our capacity for “rabble rousing”. It is very easy to create a herd effect in people. We have seen religious and cult leaders as the archetypal proponents of this. If you catch the mood just right, it is easy to stir people up and create a powerful joint action force.

Of course, this is all done inside a community. We have the capacity to form big groups, often quite anonymously. This is an oddity of humans unlike any other species. In other species, groups are created by personal allegiances between members. We, though, have evolved the capacity to generalise that allegiance to a group as a “concept” rather than to individual members. Looking at this nebulous concept of a group, we also take the example of big team sport events where you may go along with two or three of your inner core, and hang around the periphery, engaging as much or little as you wish, in a crowd of many thousands.”


Social networking services have, for now, become an integral part of how humans communicate with each other, and as groups. The importance of this phenomenon can be seen clearly when considering its economic and political impacts. Barack Obama, for example, engaged millions through social networks to build support for his election campaign.

The broadcast news media has also seen power of online social networks with news stories being reported on twitter and throughout the blogosphere many hours before the ‘main networks’ catch up. The recent Hudson River Plan crash, for example, showed more clearly than ever before, how connected we all are, as individuals posted, near instantly, images and commentary of what happened, before any reporters were able to attend.

The fact is, we are dealing with humans having been empowered with the ability to engage and understand social networks in a profoundly different way to ever before, and as we evolve in our relationship with this new technology, we will establish rules and balance, and behaviours that govern our engagement with it.

To understand how social networking services and our online behaviours will develop? Only we can answer that…


For more information on Professor Dunbar you can visit his personal page and his entry on Wikipedia. Professor Dunbar is head of The Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, and a fellow of Magdalen College.

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