New film “Tiny: A Story About Living Small” raises two questions

Hear from a couple who put together a film titled “Tiny: A Story About Living Film” that aired this past weekend:

Smith: The Tiny House is about 124 sq ft. It has a living space with an 11-foot ceiling. There is a small galley kitchen, a small bathroom with a composting toilet and camping-style gravity fed shower and a sleeping loft. The main living space has an 11-foot ceiling, which helps the space to feel bigger than it actually is, with a small closet and two built-in bookshelves. There is also a built in desk and dining table that Merete made from scraps left over from our reclaimed hardwood flooring…

The whole concept of living tiny seems to fly in the face of the traditional American Dream of a big house with a big yard — how do you guys define the American Dream?

Mueller: One thing that we’ve learned from making our film about the Tiny House movement is that the American Dream is changing. The recent housing crisis and recession have made it harder for many people to attain the financial stability required for a big house in the suburbs and a car in the driveway, that old model of the American Dream. On top of that, we’ve found that many people in our generation are beginning to question and re-evaluate that old American Dream and are opting instead for lifestyles that are more flexible and less tied-down to one particular place. As a society, we’re in a place of transition. I think that many people — whether by necessity or by choice — are learning that quality of life isn’t necessarily tied to how big our houses are or how much stuff we own, but about the experiences we have and the quality of our relationships.

I think there is some truth to the last paragraph above – but I think it still raises some interesting questions:

1. Just how many people are willing to live in tiny houses versus smaller houses? It is one thing to downsize from 3,000 square feet to 1,500 feet. It is another to go to a couple of hundred square feet. At the end of the interview, they admit only one of the couple now lives in the tiny house. Tiny houses are stark contrasts to McMansions but how many people would actually live in them long-term?

2. More people today might be more transient, which could be good for people rethinking of the size of homes they need how much stuff they can accumulate. (There still could be an uptick in digital consumption and ownership – but it all fits in your laptop or smartphone moving forward). But, this isn’t necessarily good for forming quality relationships. If everyone is moving around more frequently to take advantage of cultural opportunities and jobs plus people are connecting more online, strong ties are hard to form and civic life suffers.

Dunbar’s number: 150 friends is our limit

It seems like it is pretty easy to collect hundreds of friends on Facebook. Between people we know from years of schools plus jobs plus other activities, the number can increase quickly. But having a large number of online “friends” goes against Dunbar’s number:

Most of Dunbar’s research has focused on why the GORE-TEX model was a success. That model is based on the idea that human beings can hold only about 150 meaningful relationships in their heads. Dunbar has researched the idea so deeply, the number 150 has been dubbed “Dunbar’s Number.”

Ironically, the term was coined on Facebook, where 150 friends may seem like precious few…

Dunbar has found 150 to be the sweet spot for hunter-gatherer societies all over the world. From the Bushmen of Southern Africa to Native American tribes, a typical community is about 150 people. Amish and Hutterite communities — even most military companies around the world — seem to follow the same rule.

The reason 150 is the optimal number for a community comes from our primate ancestors, Dunbar says. In smaller groups, primates could work together to solve problems and evade predators. Today, 150 seems to be the number at which our brains just max out on memory.

Dunbar goes on to suggest that larger organizations then have to find ways to create smaller groups where people can still maintain connections with others.

I’ve thought for a while that Facebook should move away from saying that all people you are connected to are “friends.” This indicates a closeness that I suspect doesn’t really exist in many of these online relationships. They are probably more like “acquaintances” or “people you have interacted with.” But, imagine what would happen if someone you thought was a friend marks you an acquaintance or vice versa. Additionally, by calling everyone a friend, you are suggesting that you are open to a broader set of relationships and Facebook is interested in bringing more people together. If we wanted to get more sociological, we might call these “strong” and “weak” ties but this seems fairly impersonal.

Figures from a few years ago suggested that people had an average of 120 Facebook friends. This still seems like a lot even as sociological research from 2006 (read the full study here) suggests that Americans have fewer confidants and less contact with existing confidants:

In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them, says a study in today’s American Sociological Review. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all…

The percentage of people who confide only in family increased from 57% to 80%, and the number who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5% to 9%, the study found. “If something happens to that spouse or partner, you may have lost your safety net,” Smith-Lovin says.

Here are two tentative hypotheses regarding this data:

1. Younger Facebook users are more likely to have higher numbers of friends. This seems to be driven by being students in high school and college where it is common to friend lots of people across a broad swath of classroom, social activity, and living situations.

2. Older Facebook users are more uncomfortable with the term “friends” to describe online relationships. Of course, as the younger generation ages and is used to such terms, the term will become more normal.