Anthropologist Stefana Broadbent gave a talk at TED Global the other week (disclosure: sadly I wasn't there to see it) suggesting that rather than expand our social circle, modern communications strengthen our core relationships. She uses as evidence stats that show that 80% of phone calls are typically to four people, if you have 100 people on your IM list you'll likely only chat with five of them, and most people call only two others when using Skype. People are using communications tools, she says, to break the isolation that institutions impose on them – a process she rather grandly calls 'democratised intimacy'.
I'm not surprised at the suggestion that such tools serve to tighten existing close relationships (why would they not?), and it's not the first time I've seen stats that suggest that a highly disproportionate degree of communication happens with relatively few contacts within a group or a network. The study earlier this year by Facebook's in-house sociologist Dr Cameron Marlow showed that whilst the average number of friends in a Facebook group was 120, the number of people with whom people actively interact and communicate with was remarkably small. The more regular the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group. Let's face it, managing close relationships requires an investment of time and energy, both of which are finite resources.
But whilst network tools may not have increased the size of what you might call our 'social core', the more intimate of our human social groups, it stands to reason that they also enable us to manage all our relationships better, including our looser associations. The average twitter user has 126 followers but some (of-course) have many more. Whilst the number of people you regularly interact with might be much smaller, technology has still enabled large numbers of concurrent live connections.
A couple of years ago, Leisa Reichelt coined the phrase "ambient intimacy" (such a lovely phrase, don't you think?) to describe just this:
"Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible"
Like Leisa, I think it's just as interesting to reflect on the value that this 'ambient intimacy' brings for many people to the longtail of our digital connections, to the spread of ideas, and to our relationships with others.