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A social network for people, by trees

As the literal pillars of the most expansive, vibrant, land-based communities on the planet, trees know a thing or two about social networking. Thanks to the pioneering work of a few biologists, we are beginning to understand their methods for thrival and the values behind them. How can we learn from the trees as we consolidate our now-decentralized distributed identities under the canopy of one global forest of humanity?

📷🙏 Luis Del Río Camacho

In a single thumb tap the game changes drastically.

Depending on the social network, the rules of engagement, the social mores and etiquette change drastically.

  • On Facebook you may have 5000 friends and can check in on their latest musings and experiences without interacting with a single one. It’s okay to stalk, everyone does. But you don’t want to get too personal, because, well, stalkers. So you craft a persona, the version of you that looks on the bright side, loves to travel, has the cutest little doggie-woggie, runs half-marathons.
  • On Twitter you can talk to at just about anyone on the planet but only in quips. Here you are only skin deep, and your skin is made of whatever Avenger suits are made of. As the superhero version of you, it is safe to bitch and whine, exalt and praise, hate and love, and scream and snark whatever strikes your (ego’s) fancy. You might tweet at your best friend and a complete stranger in the same minute.
  • Marco Polo, you can have episodic but face-to-face conversations with any number of people, recording a video comic book one pane at a time.
  • Reddit imposes a system of Reddiquette which allows us to be anonymous and group around interests, but enforces general courtesy and civility, while allowing ad hoc communities to define and post their own policies and self-moderate according to them.
  • Path (R.I.P.) capped your network at 50, hoping to inspire more trust and encourage stronger connections or more personal interactions on their platform.
  • On Google Plus, well, um, you had to use your real identity. These networks each have their own merits, pitfalls, vibes, and devotees. Some have generalized beyond human social patterns But none of them maps very well to how human beings tend to network and associate IRL. They don’t mirror our natural inclinations. Rather, they manipulate and mutate our patterns of social interaction, leaving many of us thrilled and devastated at any given moment.

An organic approach to social network design

How would we design a social network if we first deeply understand the natural dynamics of human social interactions? Today we collect exponentially more data about our behavior each day. And in the last 20 years, we’ve begun to analyze it, to understand our habits and proclivities much more deeply and broadly. We have generated decades of social science that seems to have gone unused as yet. Granted our habits and patterns change rather dramatically as uninformed, top-down designs like Facebook and Twitter are adopted. So, if we want to distill our natural social inclinations into intuitive, healthy social platforms, now is the time, before we’ve blindly corrupted ourselves beyond repair.

In his groundbreaking research over the latest few decades, University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar has arrived at a number of pertinent conclusions. Exploring the correlations between brains and social groups, he extrapolated that the typical human brain has evolved to handle about 150 friendships of varying closeness, then validated this estimate with a series of experiments and surveys. These studies led to the development of a model of human socialization which describes how we tend to group and associate. We tend to form groups of discrete numbers of people, which increase at a geometrical scale, tripling for each step up the hierarchy. Groups of 3 to 5, 9 to 15, and 30 to 45, are much more common than groups of other sizes.

(See Maria Konnikova’s treatment in the New Yorker for some added color and context around the academic papers.)

Closeness, of course, decreases with the size of the group. We tend to feel close enough to up to 50 people to invite them to a group dinner. When we want sympathy or to confide in someone, we tend to have up to fifteen people to call on. Only five of them form our close support group, often family members. Meanwhile we can have up to 500 acquaintances that we greet day-to-day, and might be able, at the top end, to put names to 1,500 faces.

TL;DR: We naturally max out at about 5 best buds, 15 in our circle of trust, 50 in our fam/posse, 150 actual friends, 500 acquaintances, and 1500 familiar faces (for which we have names).

What does an organic social network look like?

The simple answer is that we don’t have to design it. It’s already designed. We now have the ability to enhance our understanding, to augment our reality. And if we take life as primary, technology is better suited as an enhancement than as a substitute. Those designing and training our AI would do well to remember this.

So then, our fresh, organic social network—let’s call it a forest—can bootstrap itself with how we naturally associate and draw on the successful adaptations of other social conscious beings, like trees. Trees share air, sun, water, and soil with each other and all manner of undergrowth, vines, countless critters, insectual, furry, feathered friends, flowers and shrubs, and oodles of fungi. Trees are the apex organisms in the most vivacious ecosystems we know of. We stand to learn volumes from them if we can pause from cutting them down to burn them and wipe asses with them.

A Walk in the Woods

Everyone in the forest has relationships with the other “trees”. These relationships can be placed in a hierarchy according to quality and quantity. Thanks to the finite capabilities of our meatbags brains, quality and quantity of friendships are inversely correlated. The closer our friends are, the less of them there are, but the more trust we tend to place in them.

Think of yourself as a node in the center of six concentric Rings.

Each Ring represents a level of trust, smaller Rings denoting higher trust. The scaling of the Rings loosely follows Dunbar’s “Rule of Three” and our AI, Pando, calibrates the forest density and distribution its grow and evolves. There aren’t any hard limits on the sizes of your Rings, but we offer firm, knowledge-based recommendations so you can make informed decisions about your life in the friendly forest.[^1][]

Your smallest group, Ring 1, are those you hold closest and trust most. Dunbar’s research indicates that most of us count 3 to 5 in this group. These are your partners, your siblings, your parents, your best friends, your bullet takers, your shoulders to cry on, your hive mind, so there isn’t much you don’t want them to know about you. Trust, contact, and transparency are high for Ring 1. Of course, it’s up to you whether you want to keep secrets in the forest. That’s what your trunk is for.

Ring 2 friends tend to number 9 to 15 for those in Dunbar’s studies. These people are your inner circle, your laughter well, your sympathy phone tree, the ones you pick up at the airport. They don’t know everything about you, but you’d probably tell them if they asked.

But here’s the thing about friend Rings.

Just because Tiffany is in your 2nd Ring doesn’t mean you’re in hers. We can decide how much our friends mean to us, but we can’t decide how much we mean to them. These asymmetries in relationships, whether they are co-dependent or co-committed, are a common source of confusion and distress, especially when the asymmetries lay dormant or hidden, then are suddenly exposed.

Respect for the autonomy of other trees is one of the fundamental values in the Forest. Back in default human world, autonomy is nowhere to be found on the list of staunchly defended human rights. Unless obeying the Ads is somehow autonomous. We may think of autonomous cars as somehow mindless though they exhibit many signs of life and intelligence. But allowing that sense of autonomous to diffuse into our language is likely to leave us with an inverse definition of autonomy, in the way that “literally” came to primarily connote its original opposite in the last decade or so. But I literally digress…

One of the parameters that varies with trust is transparency. Your closer friends have more insight as to how closely you hold them, without the need for explicit labels like Ring 1 and Ring 2. You know who is in your Rings. Their experience interacting with you changes based on how closely you hold them. But no one else needs to be able to rifle through your Rings. That’s just for you.

Rather than wasting our time protecting privacy, in the forest, we build and defend trust. Oh, and we’ll avoid waldeinsamkeit altogether. Some might go to the woods to be alone, but we don’t go to social networks for solitude. I’ll expound on a solution for empty room syndrome in a later post.

An aside on design methodology

Say you want to help people get around. You could try to design a mode of transportation. There are many ways to go about this, but two stand out to me as strikingly opposite and relevant to our Ring discussion today.

You could dream big, imagining an ideal network of throughways and vehicles that could carry people where they wanted to be as quickly, safely, cheaply, and easily as possible. If you build it, they will travel. A brilliant design with enough passion and capital to develop it cannot fail. Today we have high-speed commuter trains and global airlines thanks to visions like these centuries and decades ago. They blasted through mountains and enslaved thousands to connect the coasts with the intercontinental railroad. Two world wars provided the theater and set the merciless stage to test and refine our aeronautical ambitions without sacrificing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. But in the wake of all that carnage, tens of millions of us take trains every day. Nearly 5 million of us experienced the miracle of flight last year. We can call this approach to design top-down, or the Hard Way.

The iPhone was a top-down design. The book. Bluetooth. Nuclear fission. The satellite. The skyscraper. Teflon, Gore-tex, Ziploc. Radial tires. The wristwatch.

Which means there must be an Easy Way. Take hoverboards. Sure they started with a (Back to the) futuristic vision, but that vision wasn’t a grand one. The original hover-board was an intuitive iteration on a pedestrian, punk phenomenon: the skateboard. Itself likely an accidental invention (“Eureka! Oh shit!”), the first skateboards came about when some kids or dads nailed some roller skates to a plank. Perhaps they had aspired to building a scooter, but were unable to source handlebars. Either way, this bottom-up design didn’t take long to storm neighborhood sidewalks throughout the U.S. and beyond. But the skateboard wasn’t for everyone. We bipeds are accustomed to facing forwards when we move, eyes in the front of our heads and all. But with a little wizardry and some gyroscopes and accelerometers, the Segway was born. It didn’t take long after that to snap the handlebars off, refining the design into the self-balancing smart scooter, which we now call the hoverboard. The hoverboard provides familiar mobility, like jogging without all the steps or the wheezing. It can take you anywhere that is ADA compliant. And it doesn’t require any additional infrastructure or urban planning, just a charge every 10ish miles.

Bottom-up designs are much more common and prevalent.

[^1]: Google Plus’s ill-fated “Circles” were an unfortunate misnomer as they more accurately resembled “separate spheres” or cliques. We’ll use “Rings” to avoid confusion. Also trees have rings.