A social network for people, by trees

100% organic sosh juice

As the 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 tap, we change the game.

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

  • On Facebook we may have 5000 friends and can check in on their latest musings and experiences without interacting with anyone. It’s okay to stalk, everyone does. But we don’t want to get too personal, because, well, stalkers. So we craft personas, the version of us that looks on the bright side, loves to travel, has the cutest little doggie-woggie, runs half-marathons. And we post and comment as these personas, these clusters of ideologies that comprise our identities.
  • On Instagram we share retakes and glam-ups of the lives of our personas. Glorious summits at sunset (that we drove all the way up to while nomming In’n’Out burger in the car), laughter in the pumpkin patch (after spending 30 minutes trying to park). Our followers can number in the many millions, an unknowable amount of beings.
  • On Twitter we can talk to at just about anyone on the planet but only in quips. Here we are only skin deep, and our skin is made of whatever Avenger suits are made of. As the superhero version of us, it is safe to bitch and whine, exalt and praise, hate and love, and scream and snark whatever strikes our (ego’s) fancy. We might tweet at our best friend and a complete stranger in the same minute, safe in our bubbles, not making foam.
  • In Marco Polo, we 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 our networks at 50, hoping to inspire more trust and encourage stronger connections or more personal interactions on their platform.
  • On Google Plus, well, um, we had to use our real identities. And talk about how much we miss Google Reader. (Mourners rejoice! There is now Hypothesis a.k.a.

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, that is, multi-generationally.

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 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. What a handily mathematical model!

(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 fifty people to invite them over for 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, the inner circle who know our dark secrets; these are often family members. Meanwhile we can have up to five hundred acquaintances that we greet day-to-day, and might be able, at the top end, to put names to fifteen hundred 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 (ones 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/consciousness/nature as primary (I am therefore I think), then we remember that technology is an enhancement, not a substitute, for reality. Those designing and training our AI and crafting VR worlds may think differently, placing artifice before art, confusing the mirror and its image.

So then, our fresh, organic social network—let’s call it the Forest—will bootstrap itself, reflecting how we naturally associate. Our Forest can draw on the successful adaptations of other social conscious beings, like those that we separate into 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. And yet they are mostly dead matter, pillars of cellulose frozen in woody stasis, more akin to the hairs on Gaia’s back than the Ents of Tolkien’s bedtime stories. Monsters or merely matter, we stand to learn volumes from them if we can pause from chopping and burning and making sheets of them to sneeze into and wipe our asses with for a moment. Bidet, mate!

A Walk in the Woods

Everyone in the Forest has relationships with all the other “trees”. These relationships can be sorted into a hierarchy according to quality and quantity. Thanks to the finite capabilities of our meatbags brains gooey prickles/prickly goo, quality and quantity of friendships are inversely correlated. The closer our friends are, the less of them there tend to be, but the more trust we tend to place in them. No hard science here, just a bunch of goo.

Let’s imagine ourselves as nodes at 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 the Forest’s budding algorithmic entity, Pando, calibrates the forest density and distribution as it grows and evolves. There aren’t any hard limits on the sizes of our Rings, but the Forest offers firm recommendations so we can make intuitive decisions about our life in the friendly forest.[^1][]

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

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

But here’s the thing about friend Rings.

Just because Tiffany is in my 2nd Ring doesn’t mean I’m in hers. We might feel like we can decide how much our friends mean to us, but we can’t decide how much we mean to them. Can’t pick your friends’ noses, amirite? 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 (so-called civilization), autonomy is nowhere to be found on the list of staunchly defended human rights. The Right to Obey Ads with drool in our eyes. The Right to Vote for one of two heinous liars. The Right to Eat Moar Sugar whenever we crave it. 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. I literally digress…

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

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 we want to help people get around. We 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.

We 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 we 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. We blasted through mountains and enslaved many thousands to connect the coasts with a continental 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 five million of us experienced the miracle of flight last year. We can call this approach to design top-down, **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.

If there’s a Hard Way, 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 shi…”), 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 us anywhere ADA compliant. And it doesn’t require any additional infrastructure or urban planning, just a charge every 10ish miles.

I wonder which are designs are more common and prevalent? Bottoms-up or top-down?

[^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.