Function Related (Dunbar #, # of Social Connections [FB, Twitter, Linkedin]) Returns “Hell! No”;

In geek speak, I am saying that Dunbar # has less to do with # of Social Network Connection one might have to generate meaningful relationships ….

My cuber social map by Frank Da Silva
When I read Seth Godin’s blog about Dunbar number this morning, it got me thinking ……

Seth’s blog

Dunbar postulated that the typical human being can only have 150 friends. One hundred fifty people in the tribe. After that, we just aren’t cognitively organized to handle and track new people easily. That’s why, without external forces, human tribes tend to split in two after they reach this size. It’s why WL Gore limits the size of their offices to 150 (when they grow, they build a whole new building).

Facebook and Twitter and blogs fly in the face of Dunbar’s number. They put hundreds or thousands of friendlies in front of us, people we would have lost touch with (why? because of Dunbar!) except that they keep digitally reappearing.

I am not qualified to comment on Dunbar’s reasoning with respect to human “neocortex” limitations to maintain social relationship, but I feel Dunbar was trying to say something else and has less to do with number of (useful and productive) social connections one might have in the 21st century. Somehow his core research on tribal formations and groups got dragged into the current generation social networking paradigms.

Going along with the assumption that Dunbar’s # can be used in the context of current generation Social Networking ……. here are my thoughts.

According to Wikipedia, Dunbar got to this number with this kind of research/analysis, amongst others …

Dunbar’s surveys of village and tribe sizes also appeared to approximate this predicted value, including 150 as the estimated size of a neolithic farming village; 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; 200 as the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline’s sub-specialization; 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the 16th century; and notions of appropriate company size.

Regardless of whether an individual is able to build a cohesive relationship with all the 500+ Linkedin or Facebook connections or not, lets analyze Dunbar’s analysis.

1. 150 is the mean number concluded based on historic tribal group sizes – from the hunter-gatherer societies.

That is fundamentally a flawed argument – because the limitations, challenges and ways of life are so different between the hunter-gatherer society and the 21st century.
– In that era people got out of their beds (realistically patches of grass in their caves) for survival and sustenance and current generation human to grow up the Maslow’s pyramid.

2. Dunbar is talking about 150 as the size for the groups to have incentive to “remain together”.

– Current generation social networkers are not planning to “remain together” when they add their friends. Eschewing the real motivations and reasons for someone to “add” new friends(maybe in another blog), I am certain it is not to “remain together”.

3. Dunbar concludes that 42% of an individuals time is spent towards social grooming and nearly all the people in these tribes are physically close.

– While being physically close was a must in the tribal era, but it is not necessary in the 21st century to build and maintain value add relationships. Thanks to technological innovation, social grooming should not take 50% of your day’s activity.
social networking image

4. Dunbar does conclude that “language” as one of the tools for early humans to do social grooming. In fact he concludes that because of language, humans have a bigger Dunbar number than primates. This again proves my point that – on top of language, we have many other tools – that let us build “valuable” social relationships – albeit virtual – potentially increasing the Dunbar limit of 150.

PS: Please note that above data points about Dunbar are taken from Wikipedia.
PS: I have not read Dunbar’s book – Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language.
Disclaimer – Opinions expressed are my own and not of my employer.

Tags: , , , , , , ,