Dunbar’s Number expresses the limits of close social connections available to our species. Robin Dunbar himself, a British anthropologist, put the number at about 150 based on studies of other primates and of primitive human cultures. Subsequently other scholars have argued it up to about 250 and down to 80. Whatever it, is the conclusion is the same: there is a point beyond which we can’t maintain meaningful relationships.

Social connection. Photo Library of Congress.

Dunbar’s idea of close relationships is an extension of his work with the grooming habits of primates; grooming serves as the social glue within groups. To simplify his ideas shamefully, there are only so many apes with whom one can have a grooming relationship, and apes outside of that relationship are potentially hostile or dangerous. Dunbar speculates that language serves as one human “grooming” mechanism, so a genuine community is one in which everyone can and does talk to everyone else. That’s not possible on any significant level beyond about 150 people.

If we assume that language is the essential social glue, though, does that include written language? Are the people we exchange messages with on Facebook or Twitter our community? The word “online community” gets tossed around with very little thought – but is an online group a genuine community?

I don’t think so. I’m not saying that written language can’t build meaningful relationships (although a leisurely letter is better at that than a short tweet), but a community is something else. I experienced a perfect example of this while I was writing this essay. An email came from the secretary of my church, asking if anyone was available to drive a couple to a medical appointment over an hour away. My semester was over, so I said I could. They were lovely people, funny and friendly. We chatted in the car. The husband in particular evinced a devout faith. I asked him what church he attended, since I knew he didn’t go to mine. “We don’t have a physical church right now,” he said, “but I have a blog and a Facebook page where I can preach and share with like-minded people.”

“That’s nice,” I said, but what I thought was, “Yet when you needed a ride, you had to call a physical church in your town and get an analog person.” I don’t dispute that his online relationships are valuable to him; but they don’t form a genuine community.

It seems to me that community must have the following characteristics to be genuine:

  • It involves physical proximity. We go to each other’s houses and drive each other places. We have to be able to see, touch, hear, and smell each other. It’s harder to “catfish” when we’re face to face and can see body language and hear tone of voice. Our standards of appearance are healthier when we see real people and not photoshopped images. We can see the effects of our words in the faces of our listeners as we speak and may temper our language more than when our audience is invisible.
  • Community is tied to a place. Part of what creates common ground among diverse people is shared experience. A community goes through the same storms, droughts, and heat waves. A community drives over the same roads and hits the same potholes. If there is pollution or environmental degradation, they experience it together and see it in their everyday lives. If there are valuable natural resources, they have the shared responsibility for their stewardship.
  • Community is available to help. And by help, I mean a physical response to an immediate problem – like driving someone to the hospital. It is possible to get wonderful help through online relationships, but if you’re gone and your house catches fire, it’s your obnoxious neighbor who calls the fire department, not your online soul mate. If your car breaks down or you run out of gas, it’s – well, in my case, it’s my neighbor Woody who always seems to appear with his pick-up truck and tow rope just when I need him. Your community members are the ones who show up when they hear a siren and see the ambulance stop at your house. They bring food. They feed the cat. They notice the mail piling up. They go to the funerals, even of people they didn’t really like.
  • Community is not entirely under our control. A true community challenges us and even stresses us sometimes. We can’t unfriend the next-door neighbor or filter out the local nut as spam. We are forced into contact with people we don’t like and don’t agree with, and somehow we have to live with them. Echo chambers and confirmation bias, while not impossible, are harder to maintain around a random mix of real people.

We can’t afford to be too sentimental about communities. They also restrict our freedom in exchange for belonging and security. The extreme ideal of personal freedom that most Americans think they hold dear is not possible in a community. When people have known you all your life, you can’t remake yourself. Communities have a vested interest in preventing people from getting too big for their britches. They can stifle individuality and mock differences. In fact, communities can be as dysfunctional as any other human relationship. Many extraordinary people have had to get away from their birth community in order to have room to grow. However, escapees from their birth communities tend to be more happy and successful if they can find another genuine community – a university, a shared workplace, a military unit. The ideal is not to be without a community, however restrictive it might be, but to be in a good community. We Americans tend to forget this. As a result, we are lonely and suffering from anxiety and depression at record levels.

Lonely.

Communities are not really optional to human beings. Our evolutionary success is based on cooperation; the fittest, as determined by natural selection, are those people who can get along with others, inspire love and loyalty, and work in a group. The American experiment in extreme individualism, the ongoing quest for anonymity that makes us move to places where no one knows us, the recent retreat to an exclusively electronic society – these are terrible not only for our mental and physical health as individuals but also for the health of society. How can we maintain a legitimate democracy when we don’t have common ground with the people we live near? How can we agree on a school curriculum when we have no shared experiences with the children who will be following it? Or on county tax rates, or fair water use, or whether to build a nursing home or a playground? We lose the ability to argue productively, to hash out a compromise, and to agree to disagree when we keep ourselves isolated from our group of 150 known people. We cease to be the intelligent social primates we evolved to be and instead are reduced to the ghost in the machine. The consequences for individuals and society are monumental.