The Internet makes some communities smarter

crowdby kevindooley

Networking is good
[Via Pharyngula]

I feel a little bit guilty saying this: every time I write about Jonah Lehrer, it seems to be about jumping on his ideas, even though I think he’s a good writer and his other ideas, the ones I don’t carp about, are interesting. The last time was when I criticized his noise about how science is falling, and now he’s gotten on the “The internet is making us stupider” bandwagon. I think it is a silly argument; it’s essentially saying that making the exchange of ideas more free leads to greater ignorance about the diversity of opinions out there.

It’s just not true. I’m an admitted lefty liberal type, but one thing the internet has done is made it possible for me to see what righty rethuglicans are saying, and I do read them…usually so I can point and laugh, but still, I’m more aware of the range of ideas fermenting in American culture than I was 20 years ago.

But I can stop picking on Lehrer now. John Hawks does a fabulous job of dismantling the argument. Letting the arguments bloom does not mean that we’re suddenly blinded!

Very tangentially related, I also recommend this fascinating analysis of the size of social networks. It argues that there are measurable cognitive limits to the size of social groupings primates can recognize, and it’s correlated with brain size. From our cranial capacity and studies of other primates, it’s predicted that we ought to be able to cope with roughly 150 friends at a time, and an analysis of social networks shows that that is actually about right — people on Twitter typically maintain interactive contact with between 100 and 200 people at most, and any more than that is overwhelming.

So I checked my Twitter account, and I see that I’m following precisely…167 people. I feel so average now.


Wisdom of the crowds only works for things that the crowd is pretty ignorant of. – say number of gas stations in the US. Ask them things people already know and they will be wrong, whether they have Internet access or not. But the internet can allow them to find the right answers for factual information.

All this paper showed is that when people are ignorant of the real facts, they rely on social networks of others whom they trust for the answers. The so-called wisdom of crowds only works in a world where every human is kept separated from every other, an impossible task.

The infomraiton about Twitter is interesting and fits a lot of previous work. There is one thing missing though. We evolved to deal with about 150 people in our community. That is the Dunbar number and is also seen in a digital realm, such as Twitter.

SImilar community sizes are seen with online gaming worlds. But the digital world allows us to create a wide variety of digital communities. we can deal with out 200 in twitter that we communicate with, and our 250 on Facebook, and our 250 online gamers.

We only have so many hours in a day. The 250 limit refers to our ability to simply ‘talk’ to enough people to create a community. Digital technology allows use to leverage this, maintaining connections with much larger groups by simultaneously ‘talking’ with whole communities.

Our hunter gather forebears used language to increase their community sizes over other primates, whose social interactions were limited to one-on-one grooming. Speeched allowed connection with multiple people at a time, allowing our communities to grow quite large.

Online approaches now allow us to expand our connections even further. Instead of talking with 5 people we can communicate with hundreds.

As an example, I had heard about the analysis of social networks on another blog that does not connect to  this one at all. It is here though that I got the actual link. My connections to two different communities allowed me to find the information I might want with little effort.

This decrease in the friction of information flow is what changes everything.

Yes, some people will be stuck in echo chambers. and this simply creates communities that will be brittle and unadaptive. Because they ignore facts that lie outside their community. Throughout history, the most successful cultures and communities have been those with the most diverse views, not the ones where everyone thought alike.

So lt those who want to stick in echo chamber. Their communities are doomed to failure eventually by simply not being adaptive nor resilient.

4 thoughts on “The Internet makes some communities smarter

  1. It is a shame that all of you in this large community do not include anyone over the age of 65 unless they have five degrees. When was the last time you thought your parents and/or grandparents had something to teach you?

  2. I think that one of the places that the internet is expanding social networks is that we can more readily make networks out of networks, in which I think groups take up the mental space (dunbar number) otherwise occupied by individuals. Maybe we have done this for quite some time by dealing with groups uniformly (the church, or the university perhaps) or stereotypically (that other national group over there). I have individual favorites, but I also have outlier groups that I might check out. In surfing the internet, I might look at what Grist had to say, or FOX, the Wall Street Journal, or Minyanville without giving too much thought to the individuals within. Then, there are times when one individual sticks out from their community and makes an impression on me, and I can deal with them as a separate person.

    1. I think you are right. We do not need to hold everyone’s name in our heads. The Networks of Networks does this for us, gently reminding us of important people. It used to be that salepeople would have to create tickler files to remind them of the huge number of people they contacted. Now the Internet does it by default.

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