Why Having 5 More Friends Than a Chimp Could Help Google Defeat Facebook

How Many Friend's Does One Person Need?

Professor Dunbar's Book

It’s rare to meet someone who has a number named after them.

This week I briefly met and spoke with Professor Robin Dunbar, the charming Oxford University anthropologist who enjoys exactly that accolade.

Five years ago ‘the Dunbar number‘ might have remained an esoteric concept: talked about in rarefied academic circles, but barely pricking the consciousness of the wider public.

The unstoppable rise of social networking changed all that.

With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and the peer-to-peer internet phenomenon which has enveloped us in just 60 months, the Dunbar number has become a bona fide mathematical rarity – a numerical concept which transcends academia to become part of popular culture.

Okay, I might be stretching it to suggest it has gone mainstream. But anyone who dips a toe into the ‘science’ of social media will pretty soon come up against the Dunbar number.

If you have any interest in understanding the behind-the-scenes workings,the foundations or the likely social consequences of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (as opposed to just using them), then you probably want to know something about the good Professor’s work.

In a nutshell, it comes down to this: humans are hardwired to maintain no more than 150 close relationships.

Neolithic communities; military units in every age; traditional villages separated by 800 years or more; the most successful businesses; the most incisive academic researchers – all have been bound by this simple number.

The 150 limit that is the Dunbar number is not a constraint of imagination, of intention or of ability. It is a simple, inarguable fact written at the most fundamental level of all, your DNA. It means, on averge, we can juggle five more relationships than a chimpanzee.

So what’s that got to do with social networking? Well, it become a popular discussion point for social media enthusiasts because the Dunbar number raises questions about the validity or value of having hundreds or even thousands of ‘friends’ on any of those social networks which are seeing explosive growth in our lives.

Of course, the most expansive and expansionist of them all is Facebook. Even there, the professor’s work stands up to scrutiny, with the vast majority of live accounts falling between 120-150 people in size.

However, there is another internet giant which seems to be paying even more attention to the Dunbar number: Google.

It’s often forgotten that the search giant took its own name from another near-mythical numerical concept. A ‘googol’ is the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes.

When the search engine’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page set out on their work,  the audacity of thinking in such vast mathematical terms may have played a role in developing a truly enormous concept which changed our lives so profoundly.

Yet Google’s dominance of the online world is under threat. Facebook is edging ever closer to matching it in terms of daily web  traffic, as this graph shows.

Google V Facebook

Figures from Compete.com

Meanwhile even Google’s most closely guarded secret – it complex search formula – is under threat. Web surfers are increasingly shying away from getting the information they need or want via a soulless  algorithim. Instead asking the trusties in their network – notably, their Facebook networks.

Most alarming of all for Google is that its once untouchable ad revenue model is also under threat. Facebook ads might be a fledgling concern by comparison, but the growth is impressive and every time a user volunteers a new piece of personal information, the possibilities for Facebook’s contextual advertising expand.

That would be small beer if those those new pieces of personal information were few and far between. In fact they are being counted in the billions every month.

Aside from an awful lot of mind-boggling numbers, what’s all this got to do with former Scotsman columnist, Professor Dunbar and his research into the limits of primate brain function? Bear with me.

It’s widely believed that Google plans to launch its own social network in an attempt to spike the guns of Facebook. While it remains little more than conjecture and speculation, the anticipated Google social network is already being referred to online as Google Me.

To date Google’s efforts in this sphere have appeared hamfisted. Existing Google network, Orkut, could have been a Facebook rival, except that it was claimed by Brazilians, an oddity which killed its aspirations in the English-speaking world. Meanwhile Google Buzz has proved more of a dying fly, while Google Wave barely lapped at the shore of public awareness, before its tide fell, apparently forever.

Yet, in the past week Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a quite extraordinary attack on Facebook. He suggested that current users will have to invent new identities in future, to escape the youthful excesses celebrated on their social networks. Facebook’s fatal flaw, he posits, is that fleeting moments in our lives can now stain our reputations forever.

For the top man at Google to come out openly with such a  blatant scare tacitic is anofficial endorsement of a theme which has been developing within Google. The following Google slideshow also highlights this scary vision, with its tale of the children’s swimming coach whose sweet little charges are exposed to the outrageous excesses of her friends who work in a gay bar.

Google is pretty clear in suggesting this mashup of different aspect of our lives – work and play; naughty and nice; family mores and fast-living – is a catastrophe waiting to happen. It’s not alone in making such claims, but Google may be uniquely placed to halt Facebook’s relentless growth.

And so to another mashup – this slideshow by Paul Adams, Senior User Experience Researcher at Google. As his profile makes clear, he’s  the research lead for sociability and works with teams building products and features for the social web. Just the type of chap you’d expect to have working closely on the developpment of a network to take on Facebook.

Here he draws heavily on Dunbar’s number, all the while mixing it up with granular privacy controls and the ability to easily segment different parts of a network. The premise – indeede the promise – is of a network with all the rewards of Facebook, but also with built-in safeguards against the risks.

It’s my own belief that in this slideshow shows the template for Google Me, with Professor Dunbar’s number at its very heart. Let battle commence.

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