Challenging Dunbar’s Number

dunbarThe question of how many friends you can effectively communicate with goes round and round in social media circles. The “Dunbar’s Number” theory is frequently quoted as a measure of how many connections one person can really engage with at any one time. Usually by somebody who’s having trouble managing what network they have now and can’t imagine how they’ll do it when their network gets bigger.

Dunbar’s number is named after Robin Dunbar, a British Anthropologist who theorized that the average human brain can only effectively maintain a social relationship with approximately150 people at one time. (Dunbar never set an exact number, but this is the one most frequently quoted).You can learn a lot more about Dunbar and his theories here ( the presentation is fascinating), but I wonder how these theories really relate to the communication tools we use today. I argue that social media enables us to reach out to many more people and make more relationships at a time. Although many of those relationships may not be as deep as family or close personal friends, they still enrich our lives and expand what we are able to experience.

Currently I’ve got about 11,000 people at the first level of my various networks, and while I don’t communicate regularly with all of them, I work hard to have some kind of connection and refresh the contact periodically in some way. My connections range widely in interest areas, as does my business, so each of these interest areas has it’s own sub-network as well. I may share some information or a connection within one of these subgroups, thus nurturing the relationship with the group and the people I’ve connected. Generally there will be some feedback, some give and take or conversation resulting from this either on or off line. New introductions will be made and new conversations started.

I’m not supporting building humongous numbers of “friends” for the sake of the numbers. I will never support that kind of list building. What I am saying is–if you do have a large network it’s possible to connect with a lot more people than 150 effectively.

Don’t take my word for it, take Chuck Hester for example. He’s got over 9,000 people in just ONE of his networks, yet I know from experience he does actively engage a large number of his connections regularly. Ari Herzog is another good example. On his blog he talks about connecting with friends from social media connections face to face and it feels like beers with long time co-workers. Both are using social media to create real relationships with large networks and it works.

So what do you think? Are our meager brains limited in capacity to 150 connections? Or are they complex enough to a lot more. Do the tools we have now enable us to reach more people and still have real relationships? How do you manage your network?

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  • I don’t have any proof of this, but I’ll hazard a guess that Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and King Henry IV had far more than 150 connections–and so our brains are capable of much.

    Social networking tools may be new; but the concept is not new. They used to be called by other names, such as battle preparations and cocktail parties.

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