Dunbar’s Number has been popping up–again–a lot in blogging and social media circles. People use it as a warning that social media networks cannot scale, that you cannot possibly follow thousands of people on Twitter or Facebook in any meaningful way.
Quoting Wikipiedia, Dunbar’s number, established by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is a “theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” The number is generally set at 150. The struggle I have with Dunbar’s Number is the notion that we have to limit ourselves to 150 in some way. I see it as a barrier worth testing, despite people like Seth Godin declaring Dunbar’s Number to be irrefutable “law.”
So, can I really follow 20,000+ people on Twitter? Even accounting for spammers, bots and “dead” accounts, that’s still a lot of people. My experience with Twitter was that, the moment I followed more than 300 people (my “Double Dunbar”), I lost the ability to monitor my entire network. Rather than rein it in, however, I let it go. Why? The first piece of advice I was given by Chris Brogan three years ago, was that Twitter is like a river–dip in, see what’s going on, then get out. That’s how I treat the 20,000, as the occasional “dip-in” to experience serendipitous moments of information and ideas I would otherwise miss altogether.
I asked about Dunbar’s Number on my blog recently, and got a couple of interesting responses:
“I agree that Dunbar’s number doesn’t match up with how many people you can follow on Twitter. But I do think it matches up approximately with how many people contribute significantly and repeatedly to your life. The real insight is that there is only so much time, emotional, and intellectual energy in a human being. Do you want to use yours to follow 10,000 people’s tweets and 2000 people’s FaceBooks, or use it to engage more deeply with 100-200 people? You can’t do it all. Where are you going to invest your time and attention?”
Its about upbringing; someone like Chris Brogan says he moved around a lot as a kid and has no trouble with all those Twitter followers but someone less travelled as teenager will have more trouble interacting. Technology will help you compensate but Dunbars law will win everytime if you grew up with less travelling socialising. Networking is learnt and can cultivated. That is the nature versus nurture argument applied to Dunbar.
Here are my current thoughts on Dunbar’s Number:
150 works, though 300 may be a better number in some circumstances: Everyone has a different capacity for the number of “special” relationships they can maintain at once. Before I reached 300 on Twitter, I had no problem keeping up with everyone’s Twitter stream. After that, sure, phhht. And yes, knowing someone on Twitter is a lot different than knowing them completely–sometimes.
“Baby” Dunbars” are a key to scale. The real key, however, is the power of “now.” My “Baby Dunbars” are the smaller groups that you are actually paying attention to. How does a big corporation manage thousands of employees? They break them into chunks; divisions, spin-offs, regional offices, etc. Compartmentalization of your social networks must take place without a middle management layer, however. This is where “now” comes in; your “stable social relationships” are the ones based on today, or a certain topic under discussion, and may even involve people outside of your formal “follower/following” network. It’s the culmination of all these babies that make up the larger social network of a single person.
Dunbar’s Number does not even apply to social networks: Within my Twitter network, I keep tabs on my closest friends and colleagues, a number that is much lower than 150. Those are the real “Dunbars.” Trying to limit social network interaction to 150 negates the reason these networks exist, and short-circuits their potential. Social networks aren’t (necessarily) about cultivating closest relationships, but about expanding your exposure to information and conversations. This is the real reason I am done with Dunbar.