Monday, 24 May 2010

The Dunbar Number

I have, as readers of the most recent posts will know, a bruised forehead after beating my head against Waterstones (who say that Funny/dead is not yet printed) and Amazon (who say it is not yet released) and Facebook (who say my email address is ‘not valid’) and BT (who cut me off for a couple of days last week) and the Arts Council (whose number, given to me to discuss my failed application, appears to be the number only of an answerphone) and . . .

In a Facebook conversation last night – I mean an across-the-supper-table conversation about Facebook, not one on Facebook – a friend (who has a friend who in turn has over 3,000 Facebook ‘friends’) mentioned Robin Dunbar. Ah yes (I once copy-edited one of his books). There is a Dunbar Number, not an exact one but hovering around 150: ‘The way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation . . .’ (For more, see here; and then his books.)

Go above that number and the bonds of trust and obligation fray, loosen, break up. And I have a hunch that once an organisation (social, commercial, whatever) increases over a certain size, many of its operations (and their attendant bureaucracy) tend to work against the aims for which it was originally set up; and measures to increase ‘efficiency’ can result in the whole thing becoming unfit-for-purpose. (The education system comes to mind.)

The Dunbar Number happens to be a sort of default number for CBe: for most of the titles, if I sell around 150 I haven’t lost money. The problem here is that to find those 150 readers, and certainly to find more, I have to engage with institutions (the aforementioned Amazon and Waterstones among them) for whom the Dunbar Number is so piddling it’s hardly worth their bothering about, and nothing to do with trust and obligation.

Stendhal claimed he wrote for ‘the Happy Few’ – very possibly the Dunbar Number.


John Self said...

Speaking of Facebook, did you know you have a fan page there?

charles said...

Oh. And Ha. Curiouser and curiouser.