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Who you know (Dunbar’s number)

Yesterday, while sitting in a grocery store cafe and working on some projects, I suddenly had the idea to pare down the number of contacts in my online address book. I can’t say why exactly, other than the general shrinking of scope I’m attempting with my life as a whole.

At one point I had about 3,000 names in my contact list, but over the years I’d reduced that down to about 650. Last night I exported the remaining contacts to ensure I could restore them if necessary, then deleted all but the people I thought I’d like to contact again, plus a few deceased folks whose birthdays I’d still like to observe and thus left them on the list so they’ll show up on my calendar. When all was said and done, I was pleasantly surprised (well, maybe not that surprised) to see that I’d reduced my contact list to about 150 living people, aka Dunbar’s number. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes we can retain relationships with about 150 friends and acquaintances. Beyond that, it’s too many people to effectively maintain any kind of regular communication with.

As you might know if you’ve been in my orbit for a while, my philosophy of humanity’s survival is “small intentional communities of mutual aid.” I’ve been arguing for years for the idea that our time is better spent trying to make a difference with the people we live near and can actually know. The more we try to deal with massive problems on a massive scale, the more we realize our relative powerlessness and the faster we become dispirited, or else our activism becomes mostly hashtags and memes. But if we stick to working at a hyperlocal level, we can make an actual difference and build real relationships. You may disagree and that’s fine. This is what I think, though, and my past 20-plus years of labor, political and community organizing are the reason I think it.

As I look over the 150 people remaining in my address book, I realize of course that they’re spread over a wide geographic area — multiple states, multiple countries. They’re not an expression of this idea of hyperlocal community building. If I was more ruthless and pared the list down to people with whom I have some sort of active relationship, I’m sure it would drop down to the low double digits. Once I move to Albany and start renewing old relationships, and making new ones, I expect the overall total will end up stabilizing around Dunbar’s number again. Some people will move into my life, others will move out.

I do want to use this current list of humans to try to increase the number of people with whom I have contact each week. Not counting incidental contact in stores, I have face-to-face conversations with maybe one person a week, sometimes two. If I expand the circle to people with whom I have text or phone conversations, it’s maybe a half dozen on a good week. And most of those communications are very brief and surface-level.

Yesterday a friend called and said he had just a few minutes to talk but he wanted to use those few minutes to contact someone he cared about. I thought that was a great idea. Despite my general phone-phobia, I think I might try it.

I’ve spent decades winnowing people out of my life. I’ve always been good at walking away and never looking back (except in the case of my most recent long-term relationship). It’s time to get better at keeping people in my life, instead.

Published in Politics & Activism Random Musings


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