Primatologists have noted that, due to their highly social nature, primates must maintain personal contact with other members of their social group, usually through social grooming. Such social groups function as protective cliques within the physical groups in which the primates live. The number of social group members a primate can track appears to be limited by the volume of the neocortex. This suggests that there is a species-specific index of the social group size, computable from the species’ mean neocortical volume.
This reminds me how humans (educated monkeys) are limited to the amount of friends we can track, inspire and truly call friends in our personal tribe. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, defined that number as about 150 relationships. The Dunbar Number is the total of stable inter-personal relationship one person can maintain. I can barely keep up with my nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays; in fact I often fail at that most basic social maintenance. So 150 feels overwhelming for me even though Facebook reminds me when someone’s birthday is coming up.
But it’s not the size limit of our “tribe” or the challenge of maintaining stability, it’s the term Social Grooming I find interesting. While monkeys groom each other in the wild we all use social media everyday to groom each other socially. Social Grooming is a feed-back mechanism a sort of check and balance between friends on social networks like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. But social grooming can occur anywhere friends, family and co-workers connect on a shared digital platform.
Grooming is often very subtle: it’s often a gentle word of encouragement, a word of agreement, a word of comfort, a word of acceptance, an image. It’s also a feeling of inclusion in a tribe, of being part of something larger than oneself. Social Grooming allows us to see how our “views and attitudes” fit in culturally and we gain a deeper understanding of where we fit in. Our friends on social networks give us constant grooming (feedback) they set rules, tell us what’s cool, what’s not cool, they set limits and they help keep our group cohesive!
So what’s the damn point?
The act and art of “social grooming” is a new cultural phenomenon. While our “digital tribe’s” expands daily a majority of our time and energy will be spent in just maintaining those connections. Sort of like emotional maintenance, like sending those birthday cards and even participating in what my mom would call “small talk.” But that small talk is big, it’s the real value; without small talk, big conversations never take place! Small talk takes time, patience but it is real life!