The Twitter Zone and Virtual Geography

My previous post on the 50-foot-rule led to an interesting exchange with reader tubelite, which led me to a more sophisticated appreciation of the idea behind, and introduced me to the interesting ideas of Dunbar’s number and the Monkeysphere. After mulling the straggling exchange, and starting with tubelite’s insight that the 50-foot zone is really a zone of random background social noise, I came up with a map of modern virtualized society. At the heart of it is the new form of the 50-foot-zone, the twitter zone. Here’s the map.

Twitter Zone

Here is how to read this map and place your social network on it:

  1. The twitter zone is the zone of people about whom you get a constant stream of nonessential trivia, ranging from children’s illnesses to tastes in coffee. In previous ages, the high cost of communication meant that this mapped to your village, tribe, (or suburban neighborhood plus cubicle neighbors). Today it includes anyone who engages you in a bidirectional flow of trivia about both your lives, in a constant steady stream, so you develop a full, rich background picture of their lives. It includes some of your physical neighbors (since in this age of Bowling Alone we don’t talk to all our neighbors) and your twitter and instant messaging buddies.
  2. Next outwards are the zones of people for whom you develop reductive mental models based on rich but transient interactions — the automaton zone and the romantic zone. These are people with whom you interact infrequently, but somewhat intensely. This used to include the King’s tax collector (in the automaton half of this ring), but also, say, the wandering bard, passing cowboy, monk or sailor, who fall into the class of people for whom we develop romanticized models. We are able to do this because we miss critical information that would humanize them. Denizens of this zone are often fictionalized characters. In the modern world, this includes customer-service agents, strangers you resonate with deeply in airports but then forget, and various digital passing ships like a bulletin board interlocutor with whom you spar in just one intense thread.
  3. Next comes the caricature zone. A zone of people with whom you interact in impoverished ways over an extended period of time (rather than intensely over a shorter period), and for whom you develop mental models that are reductive in a different way. This includes cases like the one in tubelite’s anecdote: “I’ve seen six months of email cold wars disappear over a single lunch, as you realize that the other chap is not, like you’d secretly suspected, a horned devil whose sole purpose in life was to harass you with review comments, but a rather mild-mannered guy with 3 kids, whose Deathly Hallows predictions happen to match your own.” This zone is also home to online or phone romances that defer physical meetings for too long.
  4. Next comes the broadcast zone: the zone of one-way familiarity. In previous ages, very few people (Kings, say, via heralds, or celebrities and TV talk show hosts), had an outbound broadcast zone. Today, via blogs, it is mathematically possible for everybody to have both inbound and outbound broadcast zones. The set “I know x” used to be larger than, and contain “x knows me.” Today, thanks to mechanisms like blogs, they can be non-overlapping. I am sure several people know me who I don’t know (something impossible even 10 years ago for an ordinary citizen), but that does not mean I am famous/important in the sense of say, Bill Clinton, who is known by vastly more people than he knows.
  5. The last well-defined zone is the known-unknown zone, and includes such defined but unidentified entities as “citizen of Kazakhstan” and “person in the supply-chain department of Dell.” In previous ages, such abstractions existed, but ordinary people (not including people like Ibn Batuta, Fa-Hein or Marco Polo) probably had no way of making them real. An Indian in 50 BC probably had a concept of “Greece” (Yunan) through an oral history that included Alexander’s invasion, but had no practical way of putting a name and face to the concept “Greek person.” Most of us information workers though, could easily find our way to names and faces associated with any social abstraction, via our LinkedIn networks, if we were forced to. But until we do, they remain abstractions.

And beyond that is the vast unknown identified simply by the formula “6 billion minus people in my 5 zones.”

You can entertain yourself by plotting people you know on this diagram, but I’ll make a few more comments.

Dunbar’s Number and the Monkeysphere

The idea that we can have real human mental models of at most 150 people is an intriguing one, and you can draw your own Dunbar boundary on the map by drawing a circle around the 150 points representing people you know best. But here’s an alternate thought. Recognize that due to mobility and virtualization, you can now get a continuous spectrum rather than a discrete set of models (“stranger,” “caricature” and “human”). Now awarding partial points (0 for unknown unknown stranger, 1 for friend currently in twitter zone), maybe it is the total budget that is 150? If you don’t do something like this, it is hard to handle phenomena like people moving from richer to more impoverished zones and back. Is a basement Star Trek geek elance programmer who never interacts with people face to face, but has 600 acquaintances in the 0.25 range, via his Trekkie and customer networks, at his social limit?

Physical and Temporal Geography

How would this map to physical geography? In previous ages, the map of straggling annular regions would actually be fairly similar to the actual map. Today, it will get mangled beyond belief as your twitter zone sends out sharp spikes to your twitter buddies around the world from you, and your caricatured email nemesis might, underneath his blog alias, be that apartment neighbor you almost never see, who ought to have been in your twitter zone by the logic of the previous age.

Tubelite made an interesting distinction based on timezones that I don’t quite buy: that you move from real-time to pure asynchronous based on whether or not awake time periods in the respective time-zones overlap. But it is conceivable that somebody 12 hours away temporally could still be in your twitter zone if s/he is a late-night Linux hacker guru. Or if somebody comes up with a time-shifted variant of twitter somehow.

Other Dimensions

There is a lot of richness to this whole theme of the sociology of the virtualized world, including some of the dimensions that tubelite raised, like medium of communication and communicative intent, but also including such things as 3d virtual worlds like Second Life, home/community life (work and home still maintain their industrial age separation, though that is changing), the role of families and the like. How else do you parse this new reality?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. My Gawd! you write in such technically profound language, my brain is actually flying hither and thither loosing it’s boundaries..

    you are simply brilliant…:)

  2. I’ve met people who are basically someone else, and even long after having got to know them, they are still 50% equivalent to that other person. I feel like I’m zipping my acquaintances, getting more people for my brain capacity. I fully suspect that if I ever let them meet each other it would muck up my system immensely, because they would recognise their similarities and differentiate in strange ways that force me to remember them more distinctly. In other words people seem to resist being compressed, even if it is a true characterisation!

    Perhaps the twittersphere increases the number of people for a similar reason, there is no longer a transitive closeness (or probability of interaction), so people you know might not know each other. In other words not only can you abstract people effectively because of their distance from you, but from each other.

    I’d say that twitter is also useful in the outside broadcast zone, assuming you have a widely held method for interpreting platitudes or declarations.