Social media and Dunbar’s Number

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A couple of weeks ago Bernadine Joselyn sent me an email on Dunbar’s Number, which is theoretically the number of friends you can have. (I paraphrase hugely.) Here’s the definition from Wikipedia…

Dunbar’s number is suggested to be a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.

We both wondered about the impact of social media on that number. I thought about research reported in the Daily Yonder two years ago about the difference between rural and urban social media use…

The report looked at 3,000 MySpace accounts (at the time MySpace was more popular than Facebook) of rural and urban users.

They found that rural users had fewer MySpace friends, and the friends that they did have tended to reside closer to their home, that rural women are more likely to use social media than men, and they are more apt to set their profiles to “private” than their urban counterparts. The article said, “In short, rural users relied on social media primarily to bond with existing close friends rather than building friendship bridges to users in other areas of the country.”

We replicated the study ourselves at the time (using Facebook and Twitter) and found pretty much the same thing. Our response base was 74% rural. Most folks tended to have online friendships that coincided with offline relationships. Back when we did the story I asked about the value of online connections…

I also asked what people found most valuable about social media. Keeping in contact with families and friends far away was a top reason. Getting to know people locally was another. Some use it only to connect around specific events or issues. It would be interesting to do the study again to see if folks felt the same way.

I read an article from someone who had a very different view on connections. The article said that Dunbar’s number is totally irrelevant in social media. The author (Jacob Morgan) maintains that Dunbar is talking about close relationships and that good social media is built more on acquaintances (or as he says weak links).

What social networks have allowed us to do is to build massive networks of weak ties. I use these weak ties all the time to reach out to folks for guest articles, business requests, speaking engagements, or ideas and advice. The mere fact that we are connected to people online creates a type of weak tie because you can always reach out to the person you are connected with.

I think one main difference between the people who took our survey two years ago and this author comes back to the definition or “close relationships” in Dunbar’s definition and the different approaches to (maybe goals of) social networking. The survey takers were regular social network users; the author is a social media marketer. So one is using the network for a purpose and the rest seem to be using more as a pastime. Again, it would be interesting to repeat the survey now to see if more folks are using the network for a purpose other than keeping in touch.

I think there have always been super connectors – folks who interact with a lot of other folks. Social media makes it easier to mobilize connections more quickly – but can it turn people into super connectors who weren’t super connectors before.

Back to Dunbar and social media – is there a connection, lesson, change in Dunbar’s number with the advent of social media? I suspect that to stick true to the “close relationship” focus there may not be. Perhaps 150 is the hard fast number of friendships we can maintain at any given time – but while the number doesn’t change, friends do. Maybe social media allows us to keep friends on deck by maintaining connections to folks with whom we would have lost touch and in some ways maybe social media offers a glimpse at future friends by allowing us to connect to folks with shared interests who we don’t really know yet.