Just how many people can we be "close" to online? Clive Thompson's piece on the New York Times site, "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy," raises some interesting points about digital relationships for those of us engaged in remote work with thousands of community members. Just how many "grooming" relationships can we maintain online?
Thompson points out that there's an upper limit to the number of strong relationships we can maintain:
In 1998, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that each human has a hard-wired upper limit on the number of people he or she can personally know at one time. Dunbar noticed that humans and apes both develop social bonds by engaging in some sort of grooming; apes do it by picking at and smoothing one another’s fur, and humans do it with conversation. He theorized that ape and human brains could manage only a finite number of grooming relationships: unless we spend enough time doing social grooming — chitchatting, trading gossip or, for apes, picking lice — we won’t really feel that we “know” someone well enough to call him a friend. Dunbar noticed that ape groups tended to top out at 55 members. Since human brains were proportionally bigger, Dunbar figured that our maximum number of social connections would be similarly larger: about 150 on average. Sure enough, psychological studies have confirmed that human groupings naturally tail off at around 150 people: the “Dunbar number,” as it is known. Are people who use Facebook and Twitter increasing their Dunbar number, because they can so easily keep track of so many more people?
Despite the perceived ease we have in following other community members online activity, there's a limit to how much information we can actually take in and care about. (Especially if you hope to get any real work done amongst all the blogging, IMing, Tweeting, and emailing...)
On an average day, I'm in contact with dozens of members of the openSUSE community via IRC, blogs, Twitter, IM, and (of course) e-mail. I have formed quite a few productive online relationships with contributors and colleagues, but nothing solidifies the relationship like an actual conversation with more depth than several lines of text.
I'm reminded of this constantly. Just last week, while collaborating on a bit of copy, I got a reply from a co-worker that seemed a little curt. I wasn't sure that trying to sort it out via email was going to be productive, so I decided to pick up the phone instead. I was pleasantly surprised by just how friendly and helpful my colleague was on the phone, and I look forward to meeting them in person next time I'm in Europe.
Like Amanda, I find all of these methods of communication to be pretty powerful. But, in and of themselves, they're no substitute for real bonds forged by interacting using more rich methods of communication.
This is a long way of saying -- if you want your community to have the kind of strong bonds that results in
grooming productive work, it helps to get them together now and again, or at least find ways to facilitate real-time rich communication between members.
One way to do this is to send your community-facing employees to conferences, or bring community members to your developers, or host a conference for your project. We had some terrific success with this for our Hack Week recently, and it's also been a successful tool for other projects and companies that work with open source code.
Due to the distributed nature of open source, you can't get everyone together all the time -- but it's necessary to get the troops together once in a while to help strengthen the bonds between community members.