6.09.2008

way past Dunbar...

in the early 1990's, an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar came up with what he believed was the magic number in social groups. not a theoretical number, or an imaginary number, but an actual hard number. 148 to be exact. by researching monkey brains, and monkey behavior, Dunbar came to believe that a basic social group could be no larger than 148 without a breakdown in core values. groups larger than 148 had to rely on an increasingly complicated series of norms, rules, and laws to keep the community intact. 50 monkeys need no rules. 500 do. by rounding off 148 to 150 (since we humans love round numbers) we have Dunbar's Number.

evolutionary psychologist have done what evolutionary psychologists do, and they have extrapolated from little monkeys to great big human monkeys, and said that much of the same exists in our cultures. deep in our monkey brains, when our groups get too large, our rules get more complex. or anarchy breaks out. or crime increases. or more people start paying attention to britney spears and lindsey lohan like they matter.

david wong, in a stroke of what i consider to be utter brilliance, has dubbed the number of monkeys in our world to be our individual monkeysphere (and no, this is nothing like the ball you run around in in the game Monkey Ball, although in my mind it looks as such). i have a monkeysphere, and so do you. and much as you exist in my monkeysphere, i am apparently in yours. david wong is not in my monkeysphere, nor i in his. so he's just not a real monkey to me. he's a theoretical monkey, and i will care about him a little less because of this. monkeyfilter, anyone?

craigslist used to be a very small monkeysphere, particularly in boston. the boston CL was the first to break off of san francisco, and for a long time it was very small. i think at one point the forums (my community, my monkeysphere) was probably no more than 10 people. the laid back community policing policy of CL allowed this to remain a stable group. sure, we fought. we bickered. we drank together. we dated. and slowly the size of our community began to increase. these days, it's hard to go more than 24 hours without hearing a reference to craigslist. it was mentioned on my morning radio, and in the news, and on Twitter. i am mentioning it right now, and i assume you know what i'm talking about. and you probably do.

the monkeysphere of craigslist became increasingly crowded... and the Terms of Use became increasingly complicated. what was started as a side project for Craig in 1995 has ended up as a web site that gets over 10 billion hits a month. yeah. that's billion-with-a-b. and i can see why. i have made friends there. i have sold furniture. i have found, uh, six different boyfriends. i got my tenants that way. i gave away a studios worth of yarn. i have used it to hear about people's deaths and to celebrate their lives. i get info there. and give advice. craigslist is a one stop shopping site in a way that amazon hoped to be and probably never will be. in a world where google is king and yahoo is queen, craigslist is the unquestionable and irrepressible jester.

but i think it's too large for the feel good "fighting evil one post at a time" philosophy that has ruled it for the past 20 years. with it's small staff, and community moderation, it still attempts to live within the monkeysphere. and yet i believe that it went way past the threshold for Dunbar's Number somewhere in the early part of the century. just a quick look at the fact sheet shows how boston was created in 2000, and then each year the number of new cities grows. by the time the timeline gets down to 2006 (just six years later!), the sheet simply states "More than 130 new cites were added". They don't even name them. because these cities are no longer Real Monkeys!

and the moderators can't keep up. the people who flag inappropriate posts can't keep up. and the trolls keep multiplying because we are not real monkeys to them. people throw the n-word around because they can. people call each other "homos" and "fags" because they can. hitler is widely used to begin, or to end, arguments (please see "Godwin's Law"). people are sexist, racist, classist, elist, pain in the ass jerks, because we are well past Dunbar. and in the end, unless craigslist keeps up, it will kill the website for useful content and it will become another 4Chan-like free for all website. it will still be current, because of it's huge hulking mass and power, but it will have no real impact for the goals that the website claims to espouse. sadly, imho, craigslist will either need to give up it's faith in "community moderation" or give up it's belief in mission "restoring the human voice to the Internet".

craigslist is no longer the human voice. and why? because it has one too many monkeys.

5 comments:

dfresh said...

Damn, that is one *fine* post. Sometimes I feel guilty for abandoning my kingdom, but then I remember that even benevolent monarchs get beheaded when the revolution comes. Best to slip out quietly. (I'm really just sad there was no Royal Treasury to loot on my way out!)

Nice work, Masie!

B said...

Do you think, though, that the BoFo got bad because that core group of people left or that the core group of people left because the BoFo got bad? And that 150 number you use - do you think that applied to the CL or just as an example?

I sometimes mourn it's relevance in my daily life. Eloquent post, though!

bandit said...

hey b, not sure who you are (?) but apparently you're part of my monkeysphere, so here goes:

the number 148 was devised by dunbar using some statistical regression analysis of monkey group size, and monkey brain size. but he then looked through history to find info on existing human "tribes" (towns, armies, etc.). he postulated, and others later backed him up, that in actuality groups fell into larger size communities when there was a common goal. however, these groups could usually be broken down into smaller communities within those larger communities. so an army is broken into units. and craigslist is broken into forums.

is 150 the largest size that a single forum could be without chaos? probably not. other researchers have noted that things such as language, shared heritage, or common need could create larger, stable communities.

and while LoL-speak and Cl-speak (38+!!) are a form of language, it's probably not enough on it's own. and while a small faction of the bofo shares a common history, newer members can't share in that history. so it destabilizes. we have no real "goals" except killing time and finding out where to get a good brazilian bikini wax. and again, these are not enough.

i personally don't think that size alone is the culprit of the loss of the bofo. personally i think it has something to do with the fact that the members of the community have no way to enforce community norms. the CL staff is too small to effectively police the whole place. and i am not sure they would want to if they could. and yet flagging and rating points are the only way that community members can have a voice when norms are overstepped. flagging doesn't work when the staff doesn't keep up. and rating points are mostly a joke.

i think the loss of founding members had something to do with the beak down, but i honestly don't know if that was the chicken or the egg. we should have been able to absorb the loss of many, so long as new members were welcomed and held to the same standards. instead, new members were few and far between, and there was not enough of a posse to get across the old standards.

the old crew got tired of the nonsense (and the hate, and the bigotry) and the new crew yelled in glee when old folks decided to split. at the end of the day, i don't there was was, and is, enough left that is worth fighting for.

bandit said...

oh, and dougie, there may not have been treasure, but something tells me that you got more than enough booty during your reign in the bofo ;)

Max II said...

Um...humans ain't monkeys. We be apes missy.