One woman dominated the 1980s gossip media landscape. I recall a sunny school holiday Wednesday morning as an 11-year-old, when family and friends gathered around our television, and a staggering 750 million other people gathered around their televisions too, to watch her float up the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral trailing eight metres of radiant white silk taffeta. From the moment that Charles, then and now heir to the British throne, showed an interest in her, “Lady Di” became the most photographed woman in pre-Kardashian history. For nearly two decades she graced the covers of more glossy magazines than every other celebrity combined.
Princess Diana’s power to propel the printed gossip machine brought her stress, unhappiness and, hounded by paparazzi through the streets of Paris late one night, the motor vehicle accident that killed her. Her second son, Harry, and his wife, the American actress Meghan Markle, experienced something similar. Harassed by photographers, their every disagreement with other royals and every utterance regarding the mental burden of their fishbowl existence stoked and fanned by the gossip press, they stumbled out of royal life and headed for North America.
Little wonder that Harry, approaching the age his mother was when she died, sought to go his own way. Intriguingly, when he and Meghan announced their new direction, they eschewed the press release, or the exclusive interview that might have been Diana’s style. They let the world know via Instagram.
Many people in the eighties and nineties felt they shared an intimate connection with Diana. Much as they followed her every public word and action, however, Diana only knew her fans as a nebulous mass, even if she had a knack for making individuals feel seen and understood. Harry and Meghan’s Instagram followers may be able to like and comment on their posts, but again the illusion of intimacy runs one way.
According to psychologists, as we grow closer to another person, we expand our sense of self to include them. The closer we become to them, the more we tend to think of their identity as our identity, of our views as their views, and that “mi casa como su casa”. That is the psychologists’ definition of intimacy: the incorporation of the other in our sense of self.
The differences between a friend, a close friend, an intimate and a lover, amount merely to matters of degree, of how deeply we integrate our sense of them into our sense of self. The more we do so, the more generous, trusting and intimate the relationship becomes. Friendship and love might seem magical, but they don’t arise by supernatural intervention. They are built through mundane, iterative interactions, paying mutual attention, being generous, and disclosing aspects of ourselves to one another. And just as celebrities share small disclosures to build the illusion of intimacy with a fan, the processes that build friendship and love can be emulated by algorithmic processes too.
We each have a small number of people to whom we are very close, a larger number we care for but who are not as close to us, and an even larger number in whom we simply take a passing interest. No matter how much we might wish it, we simply cannot be BFF to everybody we know. For one thing, who has the time to check in with and listen to every one of our friends the way we would with our bestie? For another, human brains simply don’t have that kind of capacity.
The same is true for the grooming patterns of monkeys, baboons and non-human apes. Few scenes relax me more than sitting at a waterhole in the African bushveld, the smell of potato bush heavy on the warm air, watching a troop of Chacma baboons unhurriedly groom one another. Their attention to one another looks like a gently mimed conversation, and one quickly gains a picture of which relationships are important. Grooming requires focus on a single individual at a time, so no primate can possibly afford to groom every other group member enough to become close to them. Baboons and other primates spend more time grooming individuals in their close circle, and less time with distant associates. Through time spent together and physical contact, they establish trust and form alliances.
Oxford University primatologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar has studied all manner of primates over his distinguished career, showing that grooming dynamics remain largely the same from species to species, differing only in the numbers of relationships involved. Species with bigger brains – specifically that highly folded outer part of the brain called the cerebral neocortex – tend to have more “friends”. Bigger brains equals bigger groups.
Dunbar predicted, from the immense volume of the human neo-cortex, that people would have far more friends than any other primate. The “active social network” of friends and relatives with whom a person interacts regularly and depends upon, according to Dunbar’s predictions, should tend to be between 100 and 200 people.
Combing through the archives of anthropological research, Dunbar found support for his prediction. Bands of hunter-gatherers tend not to get much bigger than 150 people. Organisational units in workplaces and armies tend to mirror this limit.
Of course, most humans today live in settlements with thousands, perhaps millions, of people. But we also know that the secret to getting by in the city is knowing when to keep to oneself. When Dunbar examined personal networks of contemporary city-slickers he found that most of us have between 100 and 200 people with whom we maintain regular contact, whether that be face-to-face, on the phone, or online. That contact may function to make plans or share news, but in the background of those conversations what we are doing is a kind of “allogrooming” (social grooming), maintaining our closeness to one another.
The idea that we each have an average of about 150 friends entered the public consciousness as “Dunbar’s number”. Dunbar once described this layer of friends as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”. While there remains some quibbling among professional scientists about the “real” size of the “natural human cognitive community”, they agree on Dunbar’s main point, that both brain architecture and the limited time available for the human expressions of allogrooming constrain human social capacities.
Evidence from all over the behavioural sciences supports the idea that time and brain-power limit the number and quality of our relationships. People with big families tend to have fewer unrelated friends. For each relative to whom we devote time and headspace, that’s one fewer friend we can know and allogroom.
Complex language distinguishes the way people groom – in the non-sinister, zoological sense of that word – from the way any other primate does. We talk to one another, showing an interest in our friends’ lives, the places they have been, and the assorted feelings involved. More than that, we exchange information about other people and the lives that they lead. In short, we gossip.
The word “gossip” wears an acrid whiff, tainted by notes of malice, jealousy and schadenfreude, and by the piquant fear that when others gossip about us they engage those very emotions. But gossip often involves positive tones of awe, inspiration, pride and affection, as well as a great deal of emotionally neutral content. Social scientists recognise that gossip transcends the limits of trivial scuttlebutt and fulfils important social functions.
According to Robin Dunbar, social gossip dominates human grooming, occupying about two-thirds of freely formed conversation. Experiments show that talking about others fosters closer ties between gossips. A team led by University of Oklahoma social psychologist Jennifer Bosson studied what happens when two people share feelings about a third person. The participants, when asked, were sure that sharing positive information would bring them closer to the person they shared the information with. In fact, sharing negative attitudes did the trick. Presumably, according to Bosson and her colleagues, because negative gossip establishes boundaries between “us” and “them”, makes the self-righteous gossips feel better about themselves, and because it is so much riskier to neg on somebody than to say something nice about them.
If you were to design a technology to exploit the human appetite for grooming and gossip, you could do little better than social media. In Diana’s day and before, fashion, lifestyle and celebrity news magazines fed readers’ hunger for gossip. But the 21st century has not been kind to the sober discussions of celebrity style in Vogue or Cosmopolitan, nor to the barely factual scuttlebutt of Britain’s the Sun or America’s National Enquirer. One reason seems to be that celebrities like Harry and Meghan use social media to service followers’ curiosity directly.
Indeed, social media facilitates gossip far better than magazines. For one thing, where magazines could only afford to run stories about seriously famous people, ones who might be known by most readers, social media celebrity is far more niche. Around my own family dinner table we share little celebrity common ground. I follow runners on Instagram, and scientists and secular humanist thinkers on Twitter. My partner follows an assortment of fitness and style influencers on Insta and Pinterest, and favours news sources on Twitter. The eldest teen favours YouTube videos about technology, wildlife and gaming. The younger teens are preoccupied with TikTok and a range of people whose names I don’t recognise at all, though I am huffily assured they are “like, rilly rilly famous!”
Internet users worldwide spend an average of 153 minutes per day on social media. Assuming eight hours of sleep, users currently spend 16% of their waking hours on social media, closing fast on using up the entire 20% of waking time that humans have, for millennia, spent grooming and gossiping. It certainly looks like social media are changing human social commerce at superfast broadband speed. But are they helping people live better lives, or getting in the way?
Perhaps the most effective social medium when it comes to friendship networks is the one that turned “Friends” from a sitcom into a digital currency. On Facebook it doesn’t matter if everybody knows your name, or even remembers what you look like, because the designers put that information at your fingertips. You don’t have to call or meet up with a friend in order to groom them – you can just like the photograph of that fish they caught with their daughter or comment beneath their latest rant about climate change. Viewed in the deep perspective of how social behaviour evolved, perhaps there really is a genuine use for Facebook? Perhaps, by storing information and making grooming easy, Facebook frees us up from the constraints of our cerebral neocortex size, allowing us to have and hold onto more friends?
On the contrary, research suggests that Facebook has not upgraded humanity’s capacity for closer, inner-circle friendships. Users in the UK, when asked to estimate – without looking at their accounts – how many Facebook “friends” they have, typically report between 150 and 200, consonant with Dunbar’s number. They also report having an average of 4.1 Facebook friends they would depend on for emotional or social support in a crisis and 13.6 close friends. These numbers don’t differ much from Robin Dunbar’s estimates of five and 15.
None of the evidence I have sifted through supports the case that online social tools have expanded how many intimates or close friends people have. Nor have they altered the average number of real-life friendships or changed the size of people’s active networks. What social media do seem to have done, however, is permit people to groom those they seldom see or who live a long way away. The high-speed, low-cost grooming enables people who have moved vast distances from where they grew up, whose family and work commitments keep them from going out, or who find themselves socially distanced amid outbreaks like the Covid-19 pandemic, to maintain some relationships. That grooming can stabilise networks, service old friendships that would otherwise have withered, and provide the gravitational attraction that slows or even stops those friendships from drifting outward.
So perhaps social media, by keeping track of the former connections we no longer maintain, is extending the most distant outer layers of our social universes, maintaining them quietly on our behalf in a kind of social cold storage, without using up our limited time and headspace. Perhaps this is a free service we get from Facebook: old friendships and acquaintances, ready to reanimate. Just add attention, a pinch of time and perhaps a glass of wine.
This is an edited extract from Artificial Intimacy – Virtual friends, digital lovers and algorithmic matchmakers (NewSouth Publishing, $32.99)
Rob Brooks is scientia professor of evolution at UNSW, Sydney, where he founded and directed the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre.