Blogchat and mutation

by Jon Lebkowsky

It’s hard to scale conversations beyond some manageable number of participants. Christopher Allen, in an excellent article on Dunbar’s number and other potential limits of social scale, argues that the optimimum limit is around 5-9 participants, possibly as many as 12.

In last night’s #blogchat on Twitter, I saw an example of attempted conversation beyond any reasonable scale, yet it did kind of work in that participants felt they were getting value from the conversation, and were excited and stimulated by the firehose of tweets and retweets.

I’m not sure “chat” is exactly the right word for this kind of conversational explosion where it’s difficult to track specific comments and ideas. In the Tweetchat application, a dozen or more comments would appear every few seconds. My experience was one of zeroing in a best I could, tracking only a fraction of the conversation. That’s the way Twitter generally works, anyway, as you scale up – you’ can’t hope to follow everything that’s said, so you dip in and out of the stream of expression. It’s nonlinear, chaotic; what I sometimes refer to as “drive-by conversation.” It feels very ADD. On the other hand, it’s stimulating, and I never fail to learn from these conversations, however disjointed they may seem.

I thought the experience would be more poweful as an asynchronous forum – that Twitter might not be the right tool for this kind of conversation. I posted so: “I wish we had this same group talking in an asynchronous forum to facilitate attention and focus.” Someone responded “That’s what the transcript is for – attention & focus.” So this is more like a blast of ideas, a group brainstorm, not quite a conversation, if you assume that conversation is sustained and coherent exchange of ideas, somewhat linear and trackable.

My concluding point is that we’re creating new ways of communicating that don’t necessarily acknowledge presumed limits of scale. We can say that meaningful conversation or teamwork has a limit of a dozen particpants, but we’re pushing that envelope hard. Same with Dunbar’s number, “a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships,” presumably 150. The Wikipedia article for Dunbar’s numbers says”this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” Maybe we’ll see a neocortical mutation as we friend and follow many hundreds or thousands of people and attempt to manage ever larger numbers of “stable” relationships.

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