By Christie Aschwanden | July 8, 2011 | 11 Comments
In my own life, many if not most of my most vital social connections — bonds of mutual benefit and regard — are with people outside my local geographic communities.
Dobbs made these remarks in a piece about Dunbar’s number, a theory developed by evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who defines his eponymous number this way. “It’s the number of people that you can have a personal, reciprocated relationship with.” For humans, the Dunbar number equates to roughly 150 relationships. “You can have extra friends beyond the 150, but they’re not personalized friends…they’re just voyeurs into your little world,” Dunbar says.
Dunbar bases this theory on studies of primates that show a predictable relationship between brain size, group size and time spent grooming or socializing. His research suggests that there’s a cognitive limit to how many meaningful relationships we can maintain and that brain size is a limiting factor.
Most of us don’t need a study to know that we don’t actually have 500 friends — Twitter followers be damned. Still, Dunbar’s theory neatly addresses a kind of relationship overload that many of us encounter in this age of the internet, telecommuting and social media.
What concerns me is how our information networks have enabled us to become hyper-connected to geographically distant communities, while at the same time disconnected from our local ones. Virtual and long-distance relationships can enrich our lives in myriad ways, but I fear that our reliance on them has the potential to erode our physical communities and diminish our sense of place.
Wendell Berry once said that “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Knowing where you are requires being fully present in your place, and you can’t do that when you’re glued to your Twitter feed 24/7 or jetting around in search of face time with connections outside your local community. People who live in a place without inhabiting it are like vacant houses in a neighborhood. (And if they travel enough, their only presence in their community is their vacant house.)
Dobbs wrote that his many “extralocal” relationships influence,
both what I get out of my town and what I put into it (aside from taxes), and limits how many important relationships I have there. … I can’t possibly invest the time to build yet more relationships there and also maintain the relationships outside Montpelier — New York, Boston, London, to say nothing of researchers I talk to elsewhere — that I need to do the work I love.
I don’t mean to pick on Dobbs, who clearly has the best intentions, and I understand his conundrum, because I once felt the same way. Then I decided to make a commitment to my local community and force myself to “make do” with local connections. The year that I spent embedded in my community changed my life, in the most beautiful way. I can’t go back, nor do I want to.
By narrowing my boundaries, I expanded my horizons. I live on a little farm in the middle of nowhere. Certainly there are things I can find in my extralocal community that just don’t exist in my physical one, but my search for local connections rewarded me with many rich, satisfying relationships I would have never sought otherwise.
A couple of retired diplomats my parents’ age have become some of my dearest friends, and I would have never met them had I not joined my local library board. Even my dead-end road has become a source of social comfort. I didn’t know that I needed a friendship with an 89-year-old apple farmer, and yet my life is so much richer for having known Mack Gorrod.
I’m not suggesting that anyone give up those far-flung friends, and I share Dobbs’s need and desire to nurture professional and personal contacts in different time zones. But allow yourself to live too remotely and you miss out on important connections.
If we can handle only 150 substantive relationships, how can we increase and strengthen local connections of the sort Dunbar speaks of here while still maintaining the extra-local connections many of us need to work in an extralocal information economy?
My answer is simple: set priorities. Acknowledge that you can’t be everywhere all the time, nor can you be everything to all people. And then, put aside some of your social capital for your local community.
It’s about values. When it comes to community, you get what you give. I just completed a three-year term as volunteer president of my local nonprofit ski organization. I put many, many hours into the job, but I got twice as much in return — a connection to a community, a stake in a group I care about and a chance to make my chosen place even better. Working as a freelance writer can be an isolating experience, and volunteering for the Grand Mesa Nordic Council has given me an opportunity to forge meaningful local relationships in a way that only working toward a shared purpose can do.
As a freelancer, my time is money and I can’t devote too much of it to projects or relationships that won’t pay the mortgage. Yet money in the bank is only part of my wealth, and I’ve come to understand that time spent on community pays important dividends that can’t be measured on a balance sheet.
The good news is that local connections are the easiest ones to maintain, since keeping relationships real requires face time. As Dunbar says, “In the end, it’s what you do with people” that forges meaningful relationships. Dunbar maintains his social connections by socializing in pubs. I like to cement my friendships in the mountains. I recently spent three days unplugged in the wilderness with a half dozen of my closest friends. No amount of emailing or Skyping could replicate this bonding experience.
There are countless other ways to connect, and small steps can be as meaningful as bigger ones. Introduce yourself to that neighbor you see but have never spoken with. Volunteer for a single task at an organization that shares your values.
A community belongs to those who participate. Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen, half of making a place yours is just showing up. So find your passion and grow your community where you’re planted.