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Facial recognition and the boundaries of community

Community is a key concept in much that we do, and I’m always puzzling over it, both in terms of how it works in our personal lives and on the local level, and especially as we explore online community building and social media. We talk about “community” a lot here, and it’s actually a respectable term in the office (rather than what some like to call “crunchy granola”) because of the Encyclopedia of Community. I would never have thought that the subject I had been studying and writing about for 10 years could generate so much enthusiasm, first from Sage, the well-known social science publisher that we sold on the idea, and then from the academic world (it is filled with articles by well-known scholars and won virtually every award available to reference publications).

When I first started writing about community, back in the early 1990s, I commented that community seemed to mean everything and nothing—it had so many uses that one began to wonder if it was useful at all. Nowadays, it’s on the lips of big business people, which might lead you to think that it’s truly dead. But community can’t die, because it is such a basic human need, as important, probably, as our intimate ties with lovers and family members and very close friends. The need for a loose web of stable, interconnected relationships (this is what the word “community” describes) is part of our genetic inheritance, the environment in which almost all human beings have spent their lives, until the last few decades.

One of the big questions about community is, What’s the right size? I’ve heard people talk about 50, and 500, and even 5,000 for a small town. This is a question I plan to look into as we develop the Community Building Handbook, but I thought today I’d mention facial recognition and biographical knowledge as two possible cognitive determinants of optimum community size.

That sounded academic, didn’t it? What I mean is this: There’s a limit to how many people we can recognize and remember enough about to make a difference in living and working together. That’s just the way we human beings operate, and if we push beyond that, using LinkedIn for example to “network” with hundreds or thousands of people, the quality of connection and interaction is going to deteriorate.

David’s the one who introduced me to the idea of “biographical knowledge,” when we were sitting at an annual town meeting. I said something about how many people I recognized, from my days on the school board and other community activities. He pointed out that just recognizing their faces wasn’t enough, that was mattered was whether you knew their names, and something about them, who they were married to, where they worked, and, if at all possible, some gossip, too. We joked about how people probably got their biographical knowledge of me—from the forms I’ve had to fill in at town hall, which the ladies there no doubt read and discuss avidly. (No confessions here, though.)

Facial recognition is also a primary way we form connections and learn about other people. I got proof that the brain works faster than conscious thought yesterday, when I was browsing a Chicago yoga studio’s website. There were about 50 small photograph of yoga teachers on a single page, quite irrelevant to my enquiry. I was about to click into the information section but my eyes somehow went straight to a single photo: someone I know, who had indeed moved to Chicago.

So it makes sense that we should use photos on our Skype profiles. I’ve got friends prodding me to get a Skype camera, so we can do video conferencing. I used to be skeptical about this, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if we don’t need to use every means available to build not just more relationships but deeper ones. And being able to watch someone’s face is very important. Of course, as one of my pals pointed out, here’s another area where the porn industry is leading the way. But that’s not community building, of course. It probably is something we’ll have to cover in our new project on intimate relationships.

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