Businessweek ran a fantastic piece recently on Robin Dunbar, the evolutionary psychologist responsible for “Dunbar’s Number,” the maximum number of social connections that a person can have (the number incidentally is around 150). The piece focuses specifically on Dunbar’s influence on the social network Path, but it occurred to me that there is a dissonance between what many people consider proper etiquette in social media and what Dunbar proposes our capabilities are.
Heavily influenced by Dunbar, Path limits each user’s connection at 150. It’s the reason that Path is destined for oblivion: there’s not enough opportunity to monetize and circles of influence are arbitrarily stunted. An online social community of 150 is far too small for most businesses to leverage.
So how do we reconcile Dunbar’s observation with the unique connection that social networks offer us personally and professionally?
Social media purists always “keep it real”
The Businessweek article quotes Dunbar describing his number like this:
“The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us….. Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”
I harkened back to a couple of tweets that I got last week about a rebroadcasted post by Beth McShane. In it, Beth described an iPhone shortcut for responding on Twitter (a great read for iPhone users). While most people found her insights thoughtful, a couple of people took issue with the fact that anyone would recommend automating anything in social media.
As someone who has earnestly tried to think of a couple hundred unique ways to thank people for sharing posts, I know firsthand that the scale of social media makes some automation necessary. It’s not realistic to believe that you can maintain unique, meaningful connections with all of your personal contacts on social networks…. particularly when it requires greater resource from you. For businesses, the network scale could (should?) be even greater than personal connections. The cost of perpetual, escalating connections is substantial and probably unsustainable past a certain scale. Maybe the threshold is 150?
“Social media cannot replace real-world relationships”
People like to say that social media can’t replace real-world relationships. This argument tends to equate social media relationships with the relationships we have in our everyday lives, and I think this is where Dunbar’s number gives way to Mark Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties” theory. Social media connections aren’t analogous to real-life connections: Dunbar’s magic number of 150 is probably pretty close to the truth for most of us (though super-connectors such as Cammi Pham and Amberr Meadows come to mind as exceptions to the rule). Despite it’s moniker, social media participation is far more often a consumptive behavior than a pure social interaction.
The vast majority of our social media connections will be what Granovetter calls “weak-ties,” or acquaintances. He goes on to speculate about the benefits that we gain from having a greater number of weak ties, but that’s not the point of the comparison. What I mean to point out is that social media either renders Dunbar’s number meaningless or it is the greatest enabler of weak-ties in history.
If Dunbar’s observations are meaningless, then it makes sense to devote time and resource equally to every social interaction. But if Dunbar is correct, then treating every social interaction with the same resources either diminishes close ties or decreases opportunities to gain a greater number of acquaintances.
As I look up from HootSuite to acknowledge my toddler pulling on my leg, I suspect that social media hasn’t made Dunbar’s number irrelevant.
What do you think? Has social media enabled you to grow your BFFs past 150, or has it grown your list of acquaintances?