The new digital social networks have the potential to transform society.
Is there something magical about the number of 150?
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that the natural size of a group is about 150. He calculated that this figure ‘seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us’. Elaborating on this ‘rule of 150’, social thinker Malcolm Gladwell cautions expanding churches to be aware of the perils of size, saying that ‘crossing the 150 line is a small change that can make a big difference’. Larger groups tend to become less close-knit and cohesion and loyalty suffer as a result.
These findings are recent: ‘Dunbar’s number’ was uncovered in 1992 and has only gained prominence through the wild popularity of Gladwell’s writing and yet its relevance is already being challenged by technology. Social networking sites like Facebook and Bebo have made it possible for people efficiently to develop hundreds of contacts in highly complex social networks. It is easy to scoff at the apparent shallowness of such networks but those who grew up before the internet was invented should exercise some caution before passing judgment. They may have been able to develop only a few intimate relationships while growing up because these by necessity had to be conducted face to face, but the capacity of people now to link to hundreds of others should not be dismissed lightly. A social revolution is taking place with implications for the way we organise our common life.
Much attention has been given to the vexed question of privacy. Many younger people may enjoy posting photographs and observations about their own life to titillate or amuse their friends, but there are real risks that such pranks may return to haunt them when they are older and journalists, employers or even prospective in-laws begin to search for the truth about the person achieving fame or entering their lives. There are however more positive things to be said about such networks. The imaginative use of social networking sites by the Obama presidential campaign allowed him to reach countless numbers of people, especially younger people who might otherwise have been disinclined to vote, without having to go through the traditional media. There is evidence of such networks being used to initiate youth-centred campaigns on social issues like poverty and global warming as those with an instinctive grasp of the power of digital networks harness it to pursue goals without being slowed by traditional hierarchies and bureaucracies.
Those who are growing up knowing only a wired world of instant connection are likely to take a different view of how to achieve common goals than those who have known a world before the internet. This has profound implications for the global reach of the Gospel which we have perhaps only tentatively begun to grasp. It is said that the internet generation has a judicious ability to distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic. This means that the sharing of faith should be done with particular care for honesty and sincerity. It also calls for new and imaginative ways to co-opt the strength of the internet with the greater power of the Holy Spirit.
In Acts 19:11 it was said that even handkerchiefs that had touched the apostle Paul were taken from him to lay on the sick so they could be cured. Those who think the new social networks are too thin to be of spiritual value should consider the thinness of a handkerchief. The possibilities before us are almost limitless.
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