This recent piece on CNET, You can only really count on 4 of your 150 Facebook friends, study says, a recap of some recently published research by none other than Robin Dunbar, (of Dunbar's number), reminded me of a piece I posted here almost 5 years ago. Long story short, once again Dunbar's essential observation and conclusion about the number and strength of personal relationships that a person can have and maintain, (around 150 in total), continues to be validated even in the age of constant connectivity and ubiquitous use of social networking platforms.
You can check out the CNET piece, and the link to the related research paper from Dunbar, and just for fun, I am going to re-run my almost 5 year old piece below as well. That Dunbar, he never stops being right it seems...
You might be familiar with Dunbar's number - the theoretical limit on the number of meaningful and stable social relationships that one can successfully maintain. First proposed by the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it asserts that the actual number of social relationships one can maintain ranges from 100 to about 230, with 150 as the commonly accepted value.
Dunbar's original studies that led to the development of the concept of the 'number', were conducted on studies of the social activity of non-human primates, that as far as we can tell, did not have many Facebook friends or Twitter followers. Why do I toss in the social networking bit? Well, in this modern age of social networking, hyper-connectivity, and the ability to make some kind of connection, (meaningful or otherwise), with thousands upon thousands of people is now quite possible and fairly simple.
Naturally the technological and social revolutions have led many to question or even claim that modern social networking technology can indeed finally enable individuals to effectively expand the actual number of social relationships they can successfully maintain, that in the age of Facebook and Twitter and the ease with which these tools allow essentially limitless connections to be made, that Dunbar's number might no longer apply.
Recently Bruno Goncalves and a team of researchers from Indiana University set out to determine if indeed this was the case. They studies the actions and interactions and the networks of connections of over 3 million Twitter users over a period of 4 years, examining a grand total of over 380 million tweets. The researchers wanted to see if indeed among these 3 million users, they could discern patterns and evidence, (replies, conversations, sustained connections, etc.), that could prove that the long-accepted Dunbar limitation of 150 would indeed be more easily overcame, aided by the ease and speed and facilitated connection engine that is Twitter.
Their findings? (below quote lifted directly from their paper's conclusion)
Social networks have changed they way we use to communicate. It is now easy to be connected with a huge number of other individuals. In this paper we show that social networks did not change human social capabilities. We analyze a large dataset of Twitter conversations collected across six months involving millions of individuals to test the theoretical cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships known as Dunbar's number. We found that even in the online world cognitive and biological constraints holds as predicted by Dunbar's theory limiting users social activities.
I follow about 6,000 people on Twitter. I probably interact regularly with maybe 100 or 150 of them. Which is altogether normal and expected and not at all unexpected according to our friend Dunbar, the primates he studied, and the results seen from the recent research from Indiana University.
The larger point in all this?
I suppose keeping in mind that no matter how large and diverse and important seeming these giant networks of contacts, connections, followers, and friends we build online are to us, to our businesses and our personal lives, the technology itself has yet to do much to overcome some of the apparent laws of nature and biology.
What do you think? Can you really have more than 150 'friends'?