Dunbar's Number and the Future of Communications

groomingOver the past year, I’ve wished more of my friends “Happy Birthday” than I had my entire life prior to that. This summer, I’ve checked in daily with numerous friends while they were on their vacations. And last week I accidentally ignited a debate among 16 of my friends over the article “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.”

Of course, none of this happened in person, but via Facebook and Twitter. The asymmetrical and casual nature of social networks is allowing humans to engage in what Robin Dunbar has termed “social grooming” with increasingly larger groups — without investing increasingly larger amounts of time. The value of these communications improvements is so great that going forward, I expect significant increases in human and capital investments in this space.

Dunbar’s Number and Social Grooming

Dunbar argues that the number of people with whom humans can maintain a relationship is a function of neocortical size. He puts that number at ~150 — what’s known as Dunbar’s Number.  He further argues that language may have emerged as a device to more efficiently maintain those relationships, that while other animals maintain relationships through activities like physical grooming, which limits social productivity, language allows humans to engage in the far more efficient act of “social grooming.” For example, a brief watercooler discussion or a “Happy birthday” wish on Facebook replaces the need to spend a great deal of time physically grooming each other as a way to stay connected. Consequently we can achieve greater coordination and collaboration with comparatively less effort.

Over the past decade I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people with whom I stay connected, yet the time I spend on these activities hasn’t increased one bit. It seems like electronic communications and social networks are increasing Dunbar’s Number such that it’s now somewhat divorced from neocortical size.

What’s Next?

This trend will continue and probably even accelerate as a result of global broadband penetration, the proliferation of smartphones and high-bandwidth wireless data, the cheap availability of video and knowledge gains from these first-generation services. In an effort to peek into the future, I retained all communications over the course of a week in an attempt to identify a few opportunities for improvement.

1. Smart Email

Even after removing what was clearly spam, only 25 percent of the email messages I received over the 7-day period were from a real person directed solely to me. Why do I need an email every time Netflix ships me a DVD and every time I return one (asking for a rating)?  There must be a better way for Netflix (and everyone else) to notify and collect feedback. Ditto for billing — phone service, cable, online services and so on.  Why can’t my email client figure out what’s an invite and queue those up in once place?  Can’t the online mail guys figure out what’s public vs. private and somehow how help me auto-filter my mail (e.g. when Apple blasts a message to 10 million people, that’s not a one-one-one communication — file it in a “MyBrands” folder or the like). Shouldn’t it be easier for a consumer to quickly (visually) identify a personal communication from a group conversation from a notification?  And why is voice mail a separate category from email?

2. Next-Generation Collaboration

An even larger category of email messages can be categorized as collaboration. Whether in the form of a blast to a large group of people (and the many subsequent replies) or a discussion amongst just five people, email today is not currently well suited for conversations with multiple people. Nor is instant messaging, SMS, video conferencing, the telephone or voice mail. Why aren’t all conversations threaded? Why can’t I edit something after it’s been “sent” in a server-based computing world? Why is sharing documents and managing collective editing so difficult? How can we merge audio and video bits together the way do with text? When will we be able to approximate the ubiquitous hallway conversation online? Perhaps the recently announced Google Wave will be the answer, or the foundation of one? Sococo may also offer some insight into what the future holds.

3. Location-Based Groups

Whenever I’m stuck in traffic these days, I do a quick search on Twitter to figure out why.  It would be nice to be automatically “subscribed” to my location to find out what’s going on. Speaking of driving, I’d love to be able to broadcast a message to everyone in my area when a car is blocking my garage door. Such dynamic and temporal location-based groups will finally be enabled by pervasive GPS and other location-based techniques. Facebook used domains to do “network” authentication (e.g. harvard.edu); might someone use location to do location-based authentication?

With every improvement it feels like the pace of innovation will slow, but then something new turns up. This will surely be the case in the communications space in the coming years, whether it’s one of these ideas or, more likely, something crazy that nobody has thought of to date.  And Dunbar’s number will continue to grow, only great new communications products will be the factor rather than human evolution.

Mike Speiser is a Managing Director at Sutter Hill Ventures. His thoughts on technology, economics and entrepreneurship will appear at this time every week.