Dunbar’s Number, Socrates’ Three Filters & Social Media Consumption

by Ken Burnside

I have joked, over the last eight to nine years, that Facebook and social media are the memetic equivalents of “plague blankets.”  Nearly every person I know who spends significant amounts of time on social media seems to be made unhappy by the exposure.

I think the reason why is Dunbar’s number.  Robin Dunbar has been name-checked by everyone from the Swedish Tax Authority to Cracked.com; Dunbar attempted to build a neurological basis for an upper boundary on the number of people someone can keep meaningful relationships with.  While the neurology is suspect, the existence of an upper boundary on how many people a person can keep “emotional track” of appears valid. Whether you believe that number is 100 to 150 (Dunbar’s original hypothesis) or 230 (what seems to be observationally provable) doesn’t matter – there’s an upper limit, and most people have one.

Social media overwhelms that number.  Social media also has a lot in common with slot machines. That little icon saying there have been 22 posts your “friends” have made that you’ve not read works like “just missing” a jackpot, and you click it and read more.  And by the time you’ve finished reading those posts, more have shown up.

Facebook is a chronovore, the eater of time.

A lot of things happen when someone’s Dunbar number has been exceeded. They get more anxious and fearful.  They make groups out of people who are ‘outside’ their Dunbar number, and with anxiety and fear, paint them as the Threatening Other. It becomes easier to associate all ills in society with a Threatening Other.  It becomes easy to castigate those who accept people of other cultures as deluded fools or horribly misguided.

Calling all Muslims Islamic terrorists is one example.  Calling all Republicans racists is another.

We used to have a society where geographical mobility was more limited than it is now, and when mobility happened, it was people looking for new jobs or fleeing horrible circumstances (think the Joads in Grapes of Wrath).  Mobility more or less stopped when you owned a house.

The Great Sort describes how we became a more polarized country by legislature and by self-selection, and it explains how we’ve gotten to this toxic rural-urban divide.

Social media allows everyone to come in contact with more people they agree with.  Human tribalism means we form communities out of like-minded individuals. We used to have to go to great efforts to find those communities, and there was more involuntary mixing.  Now, we find those communities online, and having found them, and joined them, we find other communities that are anathema to our new sense of tribal identity.  It feels so good to have your tribe at your back as you fling insults at the Threatening Other.  It was something our social brains are wired for, because it’s how we protect the tribe from predators and rival tribes.

And, much like our brain’s reaction to sugars and carbohydrates, it’s something that’s maladaptive to our current, social media environment.

Which brings us to Socrates’ Triple Filter.

Socrates was approached by a student of his who was agitated, and clearly wanted to talk about the source of this agitation, which concerned a friend of Socrates’.  Socrates stopped his pupil and said that he had a test for him, that he called a triple filter.

Is what you’re about to repeat absolutely True?:  The pupil considered this, and said that, no, he’d just heard the horrible thing second hand or third hand.

Is what you’re about to say going to serve the purpose of Good?  The pupil considered, and said that no, it was an imputation against the character of Socrates’ friend.  He couldn’t consider it to be absolutely good to relay the information.

Is what you’re about to say going to be Useful?   At this, the pupil stood and considered, and said that he wasn’t certain.  Socrates replied that if something is neither absolutely true, nor good, and the speaker cannot be certain that it’s useful to the listener, then perhaps it should not be said at all.

And thus his pupil was given a set of useful tools.  While originally formulated for the gossip-mongers of the fora of Ancient Greece, these tools are also useful for dealing with what you see on social media.

And if more people had used them, especially people in the news media, perhaps the outcome of the election would’ve been different a month ago.