Social media, “activism,” and Dunbar

I have some pretty huge metaphysical disagreements with Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist whose gave his name to an hypothesis about the number of stable, comparatively intimate relationships the average human can maintain: Dunbar’s number. According to Dunbar, about 150 people.

I don’t care about his primate research much, or his thoughts on the neocortex . . . pertinent as they may be in his field. I don’t have an ounce of confidence in the idea that we can understand ourselves and others in a Darwinian interpretive framework — though admittedly, this is quite popular now.

His underlying assumption, however, that there is some limit — cognitive, spatial, temporal, psychological — on the number of people with whom we can form meaningful friendships, seems very reasonable. Reminded now of my time as a Ranger platoon sergeant many years past, I accept this underlying assumption.

Let me explain my reference to an Army platoon. Rangers are shock infantry, so they are organized the same way as other light infantry (these numbers/weapons may vary now a bit from my time 34 years ago): four people on a fire team, one as team leader (4); two fire teams in a rifle squad, with one squad leader (9); three two-man machinegun crews on the “gun squad,” with one squad leader (7); three rifle squads and one gun squad in the platoon, with a platoon leader and a platoon sergeant, and the platoon leader’s radio-telephone operator (37 total). So, a platoon is 37 people. In a rifle company there were three rifle platoons (111), and one “weapons” platoon (mortars and 90mm recoilless rifles) (app. 35), making a rifle company — a basic fighting unit — number 146 people, plus a company commander, a first sergeant, an executive officer, and a clerk, totaling 150.

Dunbar’s number.

One night, during a training ambush, on a moonless and icy South Ranier night, when we were all obliged to stay silent and still for hours as our feet froze and we shivered off our encroaching hypothermia, I felt a sudden heat on my leg that quickly turned cold. It took me a moment to realize that one of our “cherry” privates had just rolled up on his side to relieve his bladder. This isn’t just a humorous anecdote about a private pissing on my leg, but one tiny example of the intimacies shared by some soldiers, for good or ill. We spent a lot of time together, ate together, suffered together, achieved together, slept together, and shat together. There are a lot of fast friendships, even lifelong friendships, formed in this environment, and even inter-familial relations.

There is a truism in the military — with which I agree — that when the shit hits the proverbial fan, most people aren’t willing to sustain the mortal risks of fighting for an abstraction. They fight most effectively to get each other through it. These are powerful bonds, like those between parent and child, sibling and sibling, spouses, and so forth.

To another point, formations like platoons and companies cannot work without hierarchy — anathema to a certain infantile stratum of “political” types. Without hierarchy, the whole thing would fall into a chaos of mimetic rivalries — which are there anyway, but which can be managed and controlled by leaders (my first action as a platoon sergeant was to reorganize and break up a creepy clique that had gained a kind of local hegemony in the unit). But hierarchy is not my only point; span of control is, too. No leader in these formations ever had to give direct orders to more than four other people. The squad leader, for example, interacts with his bosses, the platoon leader or the platoon sergeant, and commands two team leaders. The platoon leader and platoon sergeant (a kind of team themselves) issue down to four squad leaders. The company commander issues down to four platoon leaders, and so it goes. Just something to think on, because it works, and it keeps the moving parts down to a minimum (and prevents the messes made by micromanagement . . . which unfortunately may be necessary if one of the leaders is incompetent).

Established and disciplined hierarchies — limited span of control. (Does the humorously named “American left” have any of this? Resoundingly, nope. They are battling with each other online about pronouns or subjectless-subjectivity or something.)

Anyway, all these “platoon-like” relations are more-than-formal, unlike in other bureaucracies, because of the intimate day-to-day contact (sometimes day-and-night) that tempers the formal relation of supervisor/subordinate. Platoon sergeants are responsible for the health and welfare of the whole platoon, e.g., and so become something between a boss, a mentor, a facilitator, and a psychologist.

The other thing about this kind of military formation is that it is always focused — mission focused. So there is an inhering practical teleology which disciplines all relations and practices.

As an aside, this is not only the military . . . that’s my experience. I also had a good job once as a deconstructor — nothing to do with postmodern studies . . . we took down houses by hand to recover and recycle all the materials. Deconstruction, we called it. Same thing. One boss, three crew (and occasional volunteers). Friendship tempers the formal relation. A clear objective (mission) is always in view. What made both these experiences the same? The limited span of control, the close relations between actors, and the mission focus made us really, really good at problem solving. One ex-Air Force captain whose house we deconstructed watched us carrying furniture from a tricky, tight place, down a wooded hillside, using various techniques, to load it on the truck. He said, “Wow, you guys really have a can-do attitude.” But it was our job; we had a mission; there was no question about whether we could or could not accomplish the mission — it was what had to be done, and we had to work it out.

Strong bonds, practical intelligence, clear lines of authority, openness to improvisation, mission focused.

Now let’s consider something completely different: social media. I’ll take facebook as one example which I use frequently. Family and friends on facebook you already have strong bonds with; though the nature of the medium has shown how it can destroy these. Because “it’s all talk,” that is, text-talk.

If any of us sit down and start talking, eventually we will have an argument. If we are working together on a project, the project’s ends themselves will conform us, as well as settle most arguments. Facebook, even without its conflict-enhancement profit algorithms, bends toward conflict, clique formation, and fear-mongering — in significant part because it removes bodies from the equation. When I see you in the flesh, I see you in our shared vulnerability, and I am loathe to hurt or harm you. I’ll (virtually) fight with an avatar, however, until one of us is (virtually) destroyed (whereupon I will come to believe that I’ve actually fought, though no trace can be found of the results after a few minutes).

Apart from the inhering conflict of the medium, it repeatedly laps Dunbar’s puny little 150. When you have 500 “friends,” there are no strong bonds at all. There are ideological bonds which emerge through a process of personalized winnowing. No one is going to die, or even suffer, or even inconvenience themselves, for those “friends.” You owe them no duties or obligations. Even in the enfleshed world, that 150 number is people you might have a beer with on an impulse. The number of strong-est bonds, people to whom you do willingly owe duties and obligations, people for whom you would take physical risks, with whom you would share suffering, even defend to the death, is smaller still.

These kinds of relationships were not minimized and-or destroyed by social media. Social media created a weak (counterfeit?) relational bond that was met with a willing response (out of alienation and loneliness) by people who were already atomized and isolated.

To be fair, social media can be poached (in a Certeau-ian sense) for purposes other than what was intended (to make money by exploiting loneliness). Informal or semi-formal learning webs or sexual predations, for example . . . poaching is good or bad depending on the aim of the poaching. Nonetheless, the overall effect has been to consolidate enough weak (virtual) bonds to preclude or undermine strong bonds (enfleshed, die-for-you bonds).

This is why social media — which many of my friends (and even I, for a bit) believed would be a great boon to political organizing — is antithetical to the kinds of solidarity necessary to form actual, organic social movements. There’s nothing organic there to begin with (ideological affinity is far from organic, and pregnant with acrimonious splits), the bonds are gossamer weak, and the numbers (scale) too great to function without hierarchy and management (exacerbated by the unseen managers who fuel controversy for clicks).

The exception was discovered by political campaigns (Sanders, yes, but also Trump), which were far more effective than previously imagined; but that’s because social media was supplementary and subordinate to hierarchically organized campaigns which had a clear practical teleology (win an election). In other words,they had a mission focus. They were task organized, not ideologically organized.

Once Dunbar’s number (or its circumstantial correlate) is passed, the possibility of “organic” (friendship-bound) organization has to be displaced with a more impersonal layer of administration and management — which, as many institutional critics have noted, will become self-interested and begin to place the requirements of managers and manage-ment before the less uniform needs and desires of the membership. This is the first degree of bureaucratic separation, or impersonality. Greater scale equals greater standardization equals greater impersonality equals greater institutional blindness to complexity equals less appropriate responses, decision-making sclerosis, and a complete loss of effective tactical agility.

Before “activists” and other political types say things like, “We just need to do X instead of Y,” because some superficial data-math says so, we need to tamp down our impotent phrase-mongering and gain a clear-eyed assessment of all the reasons — based on the lives of actual people and the actual balances of power — that X hasn’t replaced Y yet. Social media, however, promotes this kind of mental masturbation fantasy, which like the real thing, produces only a small and soon to be forgotten mess . . . with no babies.

No shared hardships. No shared lives. No bodies. No enfleshed friendships. No accepted and task organized hierarchies. No scaled management. And platforms that promote sectarians, bullies, and virtue-signalers. Plenty of magical thinking on a medium that trades in pretty hallucinations.

Just a few thoughts. I’ll be sharing this on facebook. (-;

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” “Tough Gynes,” and “Smitten Gate.”