Staring off into the darkness of my bedroom at midnight, all I can here is the “thump, thump, thump” of the party next door.

Rather than stir me to call the cops though, for some reason this one is taking me back…

I was a freshman in college. The senior quarterback on the football team was eating alone in the lunchroom.

I dropped my tray in front of him and asked him what the #1 piece of wisdom he had for a new freshman to the team.

“Do you party?” he asked.

“Not really.” I replied.

“My advice is to party.” he said without hesitation.

He continued, “I’ve woken up in the most random places and made the most incredible life-changing connections because I partied.”

I thanked him.

Commons — in many ways,, literally.


College towns are phenomenal test-beds for social experiments. One of my classic essay prompts in thermodynamics tasks students with applying entropy in their personal lives. It’s a pass-fail short essay posted on a message board for their classmates to read. What it does is approach a nebulous class topic, like the definition of entropy, in many neat and new ways that helps empathize with the class, and me. One response I’ve never forgotten: a taxonomy of parties that correlated size to entropy. I’ve attempted more formality here via definitions inspired by the Urban Dictionary:

Date: Between just two people. Decisions are to be made and sometimes it’s necessary to control the flow of information.

Get-together: “What someone calls a party that they don’t want a lot of people to come to.” A get-together likely has less than 8 people in attendance. Get-togethers likely range between 3-8 people in size and often occur with a specific objective in mind, like moving a heavy item in a yard, replacing an auto-part, etc. Socializing over drinking or some other shared food is likely.

Kick-back: “Small gathering between group (sic) of friends, more than a get together, less than a party (used in nor-cal central valley). Kickbacks have one simple rule. They are not parties. No illegit (sic) friends of friends of friends showing up empty handed and emptying your fridge. Kickbacks are the stress free versions of parties where the host doesn’t have to worry about shit (sic) breaking or cops being called. There’s a reason it’s called a kickback; as in kickback, and relax.” Kick-backs likely range in size between 8-24 people to conform with “no friends of friends of friends” rule. Drinking is likely with common music, dancing and other forms of empathy (pickup football game, etc) are possible as well.

Party: 24-60 people in size. Parties typically involve alcohol, drugs, dancing, and sex. Music is essential. Something usually gets broken, often on purpose. Parties are stressful for the host, unless they have a designated location for party hosting. Cops could be called.

Rager: “A party where everyone there calls everyone they know to come rage the house. eventually theres (sic) like 500 people, the house gets trashed, and the cops come.” Generally more than 60 people. Drugs, sex, music, violence. By definition, the “entropy” is high as the cops are expected.

The amount of empathy-building experiences, alcohol, common music, dancing, clearly correlate with the size of the party; much like the premise of Jeremy Rifkin’s “Empathic Civilization”. Imagine a party where everyone was listening to their own music — it would probably dissipate quickly with a few skirmishes. We need the shared empathy of experience to keep it together.

Obviously, the presence of security and business rules changes the dynamic considerably if in a dance club. Rules like this are a layer of rational empathy.

But why? Especially in high-school and college, are we drawn to these parties, like moths to flames? It’s both the blooming age and the age of stress. It’s prime time for connection and change. Going with our Gibbs’ energy for change G = U + Pv – Ts, the falling values, stress, increasing density, resources, and empathy are the indicators of change. Much like our marches and riots chapter, society knows the conditions for change whether we are aware of it or not. Hence the sage wisdom from my senior quarterback friend.

Applications to education and business/group theory

The reason this taxonomy stuck with me is that the sizes roughly corresponded to group/classroom sizes for education. But these sizes also correspond to the groupings you see in companies and other realms. I was talking with a team-leader at Google once about size groupings and ran with a hunch. I told her she likely sees the following groupings at Google: 2 for permission, 3-6 for a design group, around 24 for a task area, 60 for a division, and everyone else. She said, “how did you know that?” Just experience, in many ways:

Decision meeting: usually just two people, one with authority, where permission is granted or a decision is made.

Design group meeting: usually 3-6 people. Similar to a morning coffee group meeting. This number of people allows the conversations to go in new and fun directions, while still keeping everyone in the multi-mode conversation. Once you exceed 6 people though it becomes difficult to keep the group from partitioning. This is likely also the threshold where people feel like they are contributing to the discussion.

Elementary classroom/team: 8-24 people. A leader is almost essential and information is no-longer bi-directional on an even plane. Rules and guidelines are more significant, but the group is small enough for everyone to know everyone else’s name and for the group to change topics and focuses throughout a day. Improvised discussions can still be easily facilitated.

University classroom/division: 24-60 people. Very much a one way, data-dump conversation with minimal questions or discussion. The purpose of these meetings is to inform. I’ve found that over the course of a semester, I’ll get close to learning everyone’s names in a class of this size. But not everyone knows everyone else.

Mega-class/company: More than 60 people. Often a CEO or other lead addressing a company wide problem or issue. Discussion is unlikely. It’s a low empathy environment if you’re just using verbal communication. People are too far removed to see facial or other empathy cues.

From this breakdown it’s easy to see why the swelling classroom size/sophistication is forcing a phase-change to more experiential and active learning techniques augmented by digital media and communications systems. Although not explicitly viewed as such, these techniques and technologies are all trying to scaffold and build our empathy for the group.

Dunbar’s Number

In the 1990’s British Anthropologist Robert Dunbar noticed a trend between primate grouping size and neocortex size. He then used these observations to estimate the maximum number of active social relationships a human can maintain between 100 and 250, with a common estimate of 150. Malcolm Gladwell associated Dunbar’s number in “The Tipping Point” with the limit on people that the Gore-Tex company allows in a single building.

But what we’ve seen from the party argument above, the number of social relationships that can be stewarded at any given time is likely as much, or more, of an empathy and value/function problem than a neocortex/brain problem of an individual. It’s an artifact of the group empathy. Now that we have computers in all of our pockets adding an entirely new dimension of empathy and information, it will be interesting to watch how Dunbar’s number(s) change.

When to call the cops

Has always been a debate. At least now we can contextualize the problem and have an idea of 1) why we party, 2) how many layers of empathy are required to keep a group, based on size and function together, and 3) the ratio of people to empathic modes/layers when a party will get nasty. Basically, with just oral communication, and no security/watch people (see the Bouncy House Physics chapter), more than 60 is the threshold where it’s only a matter of time. Someone’s got to study this. We want to facilitate change, society has figured out how that happens. We just haven’t figured out how to do so efficiently.

My quarterback sensei was right. I’ll never forget a party one January when one of my offensive lineman friends took off his shirt and belly slid down the icy street flapping his arms and snorting like a walrus. Some connections do change you for life.