Developing theory for evolving socio-cognitive systems

Lead Research Organisation: Sheffield Hallam University
Department Name: Faculty of Development and Society


This research will develop a new theory about how groups of people work with technology. We start with the Social Brain Theory which predicts that the size of groups is limited by our ability to handle social relationships. The larger the group the more time you have to spend getting to know people. Since time for social contact is inevitably limited, relationships in larger groups are less intimate. This makes larger groups less cohesive. We want to understand how social relationships work and how technology (e.g. texting, mobile phones, SMS) might make contact easier, so groups could become larger and more cohesive. To do this we will use a second theory, Small groups as complex adaptive systems, to model how people interact and communicate with each other and via computers, mobiles, etc. We will investigate a range of different groups, such as collaborating scientists and social networks of friends, and study how and when they communicate with each other, how they identify with the group and what they think of each other. We will also run experiments with groups of different sizes with and without computer technology to help communication. This will enable us to understand why some groups of people get on better than others, and how technology helps (or hinders) their communication. The results will be a new theory that predicts how well groups of differing sizes and composition will get on and how people use computer technology for social contact. A computer model of the theory will be developed to simulate groups with different sizes and compositions. We will produce recommendation for social policy on how technology should be used in the future for Internet e-communities and requirements for the next generation of computer networks to help collaborative work, e-communities and e-society.


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Jamison_Powell, S.J. Flux Stability and Junk Friends: A Test of the Social Brain Hypothesis in Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking

Description As part of Sue's PhD we have explored the following.

The extent to which Facebook is able to extend the size of our social network beyond that possible face to face (this was part of the social brain hypothesis proposed by one of our co-researchers on this grant, Robin Dunbar. Our research suggested that although people had many more contacts on Facebook that people typically know in the face to face realm the majority of these are very low intimacy contacts and do not really warrant the term 'friend'. If you focus on the relationships of medium to high intimacy then there is no difference between the number of friends from face to face friends and the number friends from our online research. Our conclusion is that Facebook cannot increase the number of medium to high intimacy friends. We hypothesised because these contacts require significant investment on the part of ego to maintain and high-cost investment is not easily achieved with the low cost signals that Facebook embodies. In short although low-cost communication enables one to communicate with many people very quickly (and sometimes at the same time) this is not conducive to building intimacy. Cheap communication is seen as such and is therefore judged as low value. Relationship building requires high cost communication, for example, face to face communication, spending time together, gifts and so on.

In a longitudinal study, we also found that over a four month period although the number of friends at any one level of intimacy remained constant (save for the very lower level), the membership of these levels changed. For example, people's average number of closest friends (intimacy level 10) was around four people at both time points, yet on average two of these friends were different people at point 2 compared to point 1. This suggests that although the numbers remain the same the membership changes. Almost as if people have a limited number of friendship slots at any one level of intimacy.
Exploitation Route Academic research needs to explore in more detail how communication signals work online. In particular it seems that low cost signals are good for recruiting many low-intimacy contacts, but poor for building intimacy. Applied research should examine the extent to which forms of online communication can be developed to help build trust and intimacy. In particular there should be a focus on guaranteeing honesty of communication. Our research suggests that users are always uncertain as to whether people really mean what they say online. This obviously has importance for areas other than social media such as financial services.

Other research may focus on how community cohesion is developed and what leads to it collapsing. This was something that Sue also explored, however the data from this was inconclusive.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Financial Services, and Management Consultancy

Description The research was conducted by Sue Jamison-Powell, my then PhD student, and received significant media interest with both Sue and myself being involved in discussing our findings in print, broadcast (radio and TV) and internet media. This stimulated further research and interest in the subject. As a small sample the research was publicised on the following: Radio 4 Analysis BBC New 24 Ireland's RTE 2's Gerry Ryan show The Hindustan Times Real Radio The Economist The New Scientist (quote of the week). I have also presented the findings of our research to members of the financial services sector (including COOs of cooperatives) with the goal of using our research to inform practice in financial services. The results of Sue's research were also presented at a number of national and international conferences, although we have so far not been successful in getting our data published. This is something we are now in a position to work on as Sue is now employed at the same institution as me.
First Year Of Impact 2009
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Financial Services, and Management Consultancy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Eureka Live (Wellcome trust) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact It was basically a Q and A session in which I was part of a panel aimed at discussing the impact of social media on relationships.

Face to face discussion and twitter discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
Description Talks to members of financial services 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Lots of discussion from financial services workers (including in one meeting COOs) relating to the use of social media in the financial services. Much discussion about trust and how it can be established.

I was invited to present at further meetings.
All of this was part of the Finance IT network.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010,2011
Description Triple Helix: regular talks held by Cambrige University Student's Union 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk with discussion in the auditorium and networking after.

Lots of discussions with PG students interested in pursuing this area of research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010