just bring kindling and some good stories


There’s a pretty cool editorial in Wired this week that tentatively suggests something that many of you have already figured out without trying: an online presence with too many followers may actually stop good discourse in its tracks. Put simply, if somebody has 957,400 Twitter followers – or routinely gets 350 comments on each blog entry – the person in charge becomes a figurehead, and the online community degenerates into crap.

Greater minds than mine have dissected what the perfect size of a community should be – if you read any Robin Dunbar (or Malcolm Gladwell, for that matter), you’ll see the number 150 crop up again and again. Apparently 150 people was the perfect upper limit for early tribe gatherings, Roman squadrons, close-knit villages, and any other group that had a vested, efficient interest in staying together.

Any bigger than that, and things got unwieldy. More draconian laws would get passed, the sense of “belonging” vanished, and the sheer size of your community would escape your peripheral vision, leading you to balkanize and stop giving a shit about big swaths of your group. I’m pretty sure companies could save themselves a lot of money by not hiring a consulting firm and just reducing their self-contained pods to 150.

Of course, with the commoditization of Twitter and Facebook, we start to use our old capitalist rules on a medium that doesn’t bear the weight as well as you might think. I’m sure there’s some monetary value in having a million Twitter followers, and if you’re in it just to receive blasts the same way you’d get information from a radio station tower, that’s awesome – but there’s certainly no “community” worth a damn.

Currently on Facebook, I have 602 friends. That’s pretty good for not being in high school, where you automatically befriend 350 classmates just by showing up. My friend count is largely due to UNC (where I was excessively social), this blog (which makes me easy to find), and the fact that I’m 42, lived lots of lives, and haven’t grown totally complacent. But that number doesn’t (and shouldn’t) convince me I’m remotely cool. In fact, once that number crept over about 250, I started to feel meaningless on there. Almost like we were all collecting friends the way we would collect pretty shells on the beach.

I hardly ever invite people to things via Facebook, because I feel like it’ll get thrown into your daily vat of invites and quizzes, and end up being one more thing you’ve got to wade through. Don’t get me wrong: I love seeing all of you on there, and I would be overjoyed to be your Friend, but the sense of community there is cacophonous.

So, naturally, I started looking at the statistics for this blog. I added up how many hits we were getting each month, and how many “unique visitors” we get per workday, and then adjusted for spam and image searches. If you follow the Zipf curve of Participation Inequality, or the “90-9-1” rule, turns out our lurking community is very large, but the 10% of you who comment either frequently or intermittently throughout the year is just over 100 people.

Nice fucking work, y’all! They said blogs were old-fashioned and would die out once YouTube and MySpace took over the world, but we gots ourselves the Perfect Online Community™! As Clive Thompson said in Wired, we’re the…

…group of people who are passionately interested in a subject and like arguing about it… willing to experiment with risky or dumb concepts because [we’re] among intimates… It was, after all, small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and the novel… what if they warned us when our social circles became unsustainably large?

0 thoughts on “just bring kindling and some good stories

  1. mom

    150? That makes our (your) extended family close to the magic number. With everyone (except my own small part of the clan) having six or eight kids, minimum, the family reunions, which are now quite manageable, so that even I know nearly everyone’s name and history, will soon reach critical mass.

  2. GFWD

    Yippee, I’m one of a hundred or so! We rock!
    I have 1,239 Facebook friends. I attribute that to being 39 and signing up right around the time of my 20 year high school reunions (two different high schools), having a graduate degree (which yielded another 3 years of classmates), having had six jobs since grad school and having been through two national championships which gives old friends an excuse to reunite. I don’t think it makes me cool, as that number is far too large to adequately manage and is not indicative of the number of people I could count on to help me bury a body or break into a pool to go skinny dipping. But it does let me pop into the lives of those I like on a semi-regular basis.
    Other than the fact my homepage opens to CNN, this blog is still my first stop each morning and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit how much of my news I get from here. I like the well-written pieces and the passionate debate.
    So keep it up.

  3. jersey

    I was told there would be no math.
    I am here for the Tar Heel banter and political banter, in that order.
    Keep up the great work – love this blog.
    412 Facebook friends and counting.
    Still fighting off friend requests from high school and college randoms.
    If I didn’t talk to you then, we’re not “friends” now, dammit.

  4. Anne

    We’re perfect! I knew it.
    I love Facebook. I don’t know how many friends I have, but what really thrills me is when people I’ve known in different capacities at different times of my life come together in response to something I post as my status, or a photo, or whatever, and it devolves into a rollicking exchange. I have been touched that there seems to be a common denominator among my active friends who don’t actually know each other personally: Bright, talkative, healthily opinionated, sensitive, compassionate…. People that would be great to hang with. I knew some of them in high school and in college. I met some of them professionally. I met some on various newsgroups and listservs and blogs — shout out to Xticianists I am now friends with thanks to you and to Facebook. Some are people who, like me, suffer or suffered from anxiety, panic, and/or depression and joined online support groups. Some are fellow Star Wars fans. Some are fans of Los Lonely Boy, Jack White in any of his musical incarnations, OK Go, and various writers.
    So, for me, it works. I don’t play Farmville or Mafia or anything. To me, computers have never been about games or (egads) programming or number-crunching. They have always been a way to communicate faster, more clearly, and across any distance.
    Thanks for continuing to blog, Ian. I’m a holdout, too, although not as frequent as you. There something different special about a good blog.

  5. Martha

    Great post! This describes my feelings on FB to a tee and I have less than 100 friends. I’m an only occasional commenter/daily reader and I hope you remain relatively obscure and the POC™ I’ve come to love.

  6. Anne

    Re: my last lol-eriffic sentence: There’s something awkward disappointing about an editor who leaves conjunctions out of sentences. ;-)

  7. Tanya

    My facebook count is pretty low (less than 300), mostly because I’m pretty selective about who I will “friend” and because I refused to join for so long. I will admit, though, that I love seeing other people’s pictures, hearing about what they’re up to, etc. And it hasn’t become the horrific time-suck that so many people warned me it would. Moderation people!!
    Heck yeah, this blog and the community that you’ve formed is pretty damn special. Like others have said, it’s often the first place I visit when I can log on and have a minute or two to spare. I enjoy the (usually) intelligent debate, humor, etc. You once described it as the perfect pub (or something like that).
    Also – I’m looking for a good dook rant soon!! I know the Heels are wearing you down a little this year, but hopefully your burning hatred of the fools in durham (or “derm” as we locals call it) hasn’t faded.

  8. scruggs

    Just finished The Tipping Point last week. Ian is definitely a “connector.”
    Just looked and I am in the 580’s for Facebook. Like GFMD, my nomadic ways contribute to the #. (Greg, don’t forget the thousands of hours warming a stool at Bub’s). But the guy from high school with 10 status updates a day about what toppings are on his sandwich, why Clemson is the best university of all time (which we know Kanye would interject and say that UNC is really the best of all time), and why Obama is The Devil, is getting ready to get the ax.

  9. Joanna

    After my recent facebook post scandalized a neighbor and inspired unwanted attention in a guy I barely know, I made my wall invisible to all. Very suddenly, I’ve lost the facebook buzz that lasted a good year. Sure, there are “friends” who were accepted merely out of fear they’d jump me in the bathroom at our 25th reunion if ignored, but I was truly chummy at one time or another with the majority of my 177 facebook friends. It’s just that they represent so many different periods, different stages of me, that a communication to all of them, other than sharing photos of my children, can be awkward. The next step, I guess, is to experiment with the “Customize” option. But I think I’ll leave the “Everyone” option to Ian’s blog.

  10. Julie

    I love this blog. It is one of, if not, the first pages I visit when I log on to my computer. As for FB, I have close to 200 “friends;” however there is only a small percentage of those with whom I regularly converse. I primarily use FB for photos (thanks Anne – saw the link for the Feb. 1 post a picture!) either posted by me or my friends and for my guilty pleasure of Mafia Wars (it’s so archtypical for me to play a game like that, but it’s my stress relief after getting the kids into bed). I only occassionly post b/c, for the most part, I don’t wish to vent and tick anyone off and for the other, my life is really not all that exciting and I would rather say nothing than bore people to tears. For all those that hate the online games, you can click hide and chose the option “hide (insert whatever FB game is listed).” Then only the non-game posts will show up. I imagine that, in a few years, FB will become a part of my past; however, I fully believe I will be coming back to this blog as long as it is up and running. :)

  11. Mary

    Great article, until I got to the bottom and encountered the ‘F’ word – WHY do people think they must use that word to get a point across? Gees – is it not possible to speak the English language these days without cursing!?

  12. kate

    Curse words ARE part of the English language.
    And they’re just words.
    Even if you replace them with something seemingly innocent, the sentiment and emotion behind them remains the same. I’ve never understood what the big deal is.

  13. Caitlin

    Ian, I too read your blog every day. I think the fearlessness of your posts inspires similar candor in the commenters. People reveal quite a lot about their lives over time, from the trivial to the profound to the hilarious.
    I even enjoy the political jousting with the conservatives because they make me think about why I hold the positions that I do, and how to put forward the best arguments for the things that I feel passionate about.


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