Taking liberties: why feeling closer on social media can lead to higher conflictuality

A short note on an apparent paradox highlighted by Ronald E. Anderson on the blog Compassionate Societies. While commenting on a recent PEW survey on the “tone of life” on social networking sites, the author points out two interesting facts :

1)  heavy social media users are prone to conflict (and, more generally, a lot of users experience negative interactions, physical fight and even end up breaking friendships because of online communication)…

2) ..yet overall people declare they feel closer to others, more compassionate and feeling good about themselves.

How can this contradiction be explained? According to the author “social networking is a mixed bag of good and bad”. I, for one, would like to suggest another way of interpreting these results: social media users are not hostile despite the fact they feel closer to one another. Rather, they are hostile because they feel closer. Closeness primarily comes to mean that users approach social media sites with higher expectations about friendship and togetherness. Social networking might thus imply adopting a social style characterized by a hypertrophied sense of intimacy, verging on liberty – like in the expression “taking liberties”: being too friendly in a way that shows a lack of respect to others.

Facebook “friending” rhetoric plays a part in this process, of course: by spreading an irenic vision of harmonious social life, any deviation from emotional proximity is perceived as a major break in the code of communication. In this sense, while interacting in the informal environment of social media, individuals not only fail to cultivate deference, but they even come to think of it as a transgression of an implicit social norm, as a manifestation of distance – or, worse, indifference – that compromises social cohesion and introduces an element of mistrust conducive to conflict.

Friendship changes, but 'friending' stays the same across cultures

Following in Judith Donath and dana boyd’s researches on online friendship and drawing on social network analysis of tie formation, this Hui-Jung Chang article sets up to detect cross-cultural variations in ‘friending’ between a US-based service (Myspace) and a Taiwan one (Wretch).
Hui-Jung Chang (2010). Social networking friendships: A cross-cultural comparison of network structure between MySpace and Wretch Journal of Cultural Science, 3 (2).

Understandably, Taiwanese and US cultures have different approaches to friendship. The author characterizes Taiwan as a more collectivistic culture where explicit messages and content exchange are less important that  the context (all the information either coded in the physical setting or internalized in the person) for establishing who’s your friend. US, on the other side, is defined as a “low-context”, individualistic culture [note: pictures are just random. Neither peace sign nor thumbs up in photos appear to bear any significant effect on friendship formation]. Consequently, Hui-Jung Chang formulates the hypothesis that Taiwanese offline friends networks are larger and denser. Does the same apply to online networks?


What's the actual size of your personal social network? Some numbers

Ok, so you have hundreds of friends on Facebook and thousands of followers on Twitter. Big deal. How many will show up to help you win that human pyramid contest, uh? And how many have you actually being interacting with in the last few months? More broadly, what’s the size of your actual social network? Scientists have been looking for an answer to that question, exploring the cognitive limits of the number of individuals one person can create ties with, both online and offline.

Famously, in 1992 anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed a rough estimate of 150. The ‘Dunbar’s number’ was the result of a large-scale study comparing the size of the neocortex in primates and humans. But in 1998 that figure pretty much doubled when social network analyst Peter Killworth contemplated a mean personal network size of 290. And in 2010 that number doubled again, as sociologist Matthew Salganik settled for an estimate of 610 personal ties.

So who says 1,200? Nobody yet. Maybe (I’m just teasing) psychologist Lisa Barrett will come up with a number of her own, if the hype surrounding her latest article published in Nature Neuroscience continues. What hype? Didn’t you see this?

Apparently, after scanning a few brains, Barrett and her team discovered a fancy correlation between personal network size and the size of the corpus amygdaloideum. Turns out Facebook has nothing to do with the matter in question. If the numbers of the average size of personal networks are going up as years go by, it’s not because of our increasing technological embeddedness. Dunbar’s number was based on the size of human neocortex (i.e. that part of the human brain presiding higher mental functions), so it  would come as no surprise if it was way smaller than the one correlated to the size of the amygdala (the part that regulates emotional responses and aggression). After all, it’s safe to say that among our acquaintances the number of those we would like to punch is higher than that of those with whom we would enjoy a civilized chat…


Bickart, K., Wright, C., Dautoff, R., Dickerson, B., & Barrett, L. (2010). Amygdala volume and social network size in humans Nature Neuroscience, advance online publication DOI: 10.1038/nn.2724

Dunbar, R. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates Journal of Human Evolution, 22 (6), 469-493 DOI: 10.1016/0047-2484(92)90081-J

Killworth, P., Johnsen, E., Bernard, H. R., Shelley, G., & McCarty, C. (1990). Estimating the size of personal networks Social Networks, 12 (4), 289-312 DOI: 10.1016/0378-8733(90)90012-X

McCormick, T., Salganik, M., & Zheng, T. (2010). How Many People Do You Know?: Efficiently Estimating Personal Network Size Journal of the American Statistical Association, 105 (489), 59-70 DOI: 10.1198/jasa.2009.ap08518

ps. This post was inspired by a few tweets exchanged with mathematician Valdis Krebs (@orgnet) and anthropologist Sally Applin (@AnthroPunk). To them goes my appreciation and #FF.