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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?

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at leaderswest.com
I aspire to give people something to think about rather than tell them what to do. My favorite Google Alert is "social media research," I am increasingly compelled by Gen Z, and I appreciate good writers agnostic of where they write. At one time I was Kred's 12th most influential social media blogger and Klout's most influential person on the topic of David Hasselhoff. Transplant from Seattle living in Cincinnati. Haven't entirely adopted the local sports teams yet.
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty

I’m wondering if the number of people I communicate with regularly in real life is more than 150. I agree that social media probably creates many weaker connections. Interesting post!

January 12, 2013, 12:00 AM
geofflivingston

I enjoy the freedom of Path, I hope you are wrong. I find it to be more real and engaging than any other social network I am on.

January 12, 2013, 5:15 AM

Nice post, I’ve read about this social connections limit in the past and I maintain a “check-daily” list on twitter that helps me maintain those close relationships (under 120) while following lots of other (those weaker relationships that @twitter-27305797:disqus mentions). The general stream of Twitter I follow I treat like radio, tuning in from time to time, whereas the “check-daily” list I read all of them and interact more.

January 12, 2013, 8:27 AM
jimdougherty

Thanks Ian – you’re my hero now. I’ve always aspired to use Twitter lists better than I do! I appreciate your comment a lot and wonder if people have similar behavior on other platforms? I assume Google Plus (because it is set up so well for filtering), but does the lack of control on Facebook or Instagram lend itself to promoting closer relationships as you do with Twitter? It’s interesting how anti-social some of these platforms are. Thanks for your comment and for th einspiration!

January 12, 2013, 8:39 AM
jimdougherty

Thanks Geoff – I usually predicate a statement like that with a disclaimer that I am the worst prognosticator in the world, but Path would have to find a really fantastic business model that differs from Facebook and Twitter to succeed. I like Path very much as well, but unlike you I can’t get anyone I know to use it so it’s pretty fruitless for me. Like I said, I only base that statement on how Facebook and Twitter monetize – if there is a third way and Path achieves it: more power to them! Thanks for your comment, Geoff!

January 12, 2013, 8:46 AM

Thanks Jim. Personally – for years I’ve kept Facebook for friends and family and Twitter for the “professional me” – keeping this manageable.

I resisted for a long time crossing those streams, however with Facebook pages being used by my professional connections, this is changing and I found that there was a need for me to comment and like as the “professional me” rather than share with my Mum. So, I very recently created a page/persona based on my blog that I use for that purpose. Too early to say how that’s going, as I haven’t yet grown that network.

You are right about G+ – as you can imagine I love the circles thing, but I am having trouble find space in my on-line social life for G+ over and above Twitter and FB.

Cheers!

@iantruscott

January 12, 2013, 11:23 AM
jimdougherty

Thanks Kenna! While I might have no guile to meet somebody on Twitter for a drink, they may be more apprehensive to meetup with a random blogger. One of the characteristics of strong ties is time spent together, so reciprocity is an important aspect as well that I didn’t elaborate on. That said, no matter if our connection could be characterized as strong or weak, I am very grateful for your comment! :) Cheers!

January 12, 2013, 2:16 PM
Krithika Chandrasekaran

I agree that brands are always looking for scale and an app such as Path with its limited number of users can at first seem as a platform that may not necessarily yield much for a brand. But I really think we are slowly moving toward a more close knit, one to one relationship on social media. I look at Path as an opportunity to build a small but a strong community of brand loyalists and advocates – customers that a brand can look to for answers and insights while leveraging these hyper-engaged individuals’ other social presences to reach their friends. Almost a mini BzzAgent or Smiley sort of service/product. What do you think?

January 12, 2013, 5:11 PM

To me one of the keys to improve online engagement is by filtering the noise and focusing on the conversations. It is for this reason that I switched to more online commenting on sites/blogs rather than retweeting or FB liking. This has resulted in great return in terms of relationships and knowledge gained. One tool that has helped me was Engagio – http://engag.io (full disclosure: I work for Engagio). The type of social gestures will determine how a one can navigate and build relationships on the social web.

January 14, 2013, 11:09 AM

Having been involved in Social Media since 2007, I have to say, I truly believe my number is beyond 150. I have met some wonderfully amazing people via Twitter and Facebook that I consider friends. BFF though? No. I reserve that acronym for friends who have stood the test of time, trust, consistency and love. Great article!

January 14, 2013, 12:48 PM
jimdougherty

Thanks Jennifer! I have no doubt that people who are immersed in social media probably could maintain closer bonds with a wider swath of people, particularly if time is one of the measures of quality! Thanks fso much for reading and commenting, Jennifer!

January 14, 2013, 1:59 PM
jimdougherty

Thanks Abdallah for your insights! I think we’ve chatted about Engagio before and I think you guys are doing a great job with that tool! Appreciate you reading and commenting!

January 14, 2013, 2:00 PM
jimdougherty

Thanks Krithika! I would like to be wrong about scalability being a determining factor for a social network’s success, but I think there are two challenges: one is the ability to generate the money necessary to scale (I touch on this in a post today about Foursquare’s fundraising issues) , and secondly, larger social networks provide a greater quantity of content to consume and interact with. There’s no doubt in my mind that a network like Facebook is the online analog to McDonald’s so far as quality, but sadly far more people eat at McDonald’s than anywhere else. Path is a little more upscale than the vast majority of people are going to consume…. not that it couldn’t be helpful in a specific circumstance. Thanks so much for your insight and for sharing!

January 14, 2013, 2:09 PM

Even if the number were 150, which I think varies by person and type of use, it takes way more than 150 in one’s network to truly achieve that 150. Dunbar’s number needs to be nuanced and revised.

January 14, 2013, 6:55 PM
jimdougherty

Thanks for reading and commenting. I don’t know enough about the specific studies that contributed to Dunbar’s number to understand if social media extends that threshold, but you may very well be correct! I appreciate your insight!

January 15, 2013, 1:18 AM

I contend that we could all manage more (and better) relationships if we could just keep them all straight –across email and social channels. I didn’t think it was possible to have this peace of mind until I joined Nimble. (This isn’t a plug for Nimble, though, I’m just saying that the chaos and noise seem to put up lots of barriers to relationships, and you need some tool to help you break free of that noise) — I agree with Abdallah’s comment below that finding new ways to connect is very important, too. I’m finding my LinkedIn groups a great help with that.

February 2, 2013, 5:47 PM
jimdougherty

Thanks Alyson, I like Nimble a lot and there are plenty of solutions that tie profiles together nicely as well. Thanks so much for reading and for commenting!

February 2, 2013, 5:51 PM

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