Dunbar’s Number: Does it matter in the Social Media World?

A social network diagram

Image via Wikipedia

This topic has been nagging at me for quite some time. It is a matter about the next phase of social media, and how humans interact with each other. Perhaps, the latter should say “how humans are happiest when interacting with each other.”

I have no formal background in sociology. I do not claim, in any way, that I am a sociologist. However, I’ve studied consumer behavior, behavioral psychology, economics and briefly behavioral economics (that study is still ongoing). I am fascinated in how people choose to interact (or not to interact) with each other, with groups, and especially with goods and services, and those who provide them.

We all have the innate desire to belong. If we go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the sense of belonging is a crucial for becoming a “whole person.” The fantastic element about social media is that it makes belonging to a community so much easier, and makes our communities so much bigger.

Hmm. Now we’re getting to the meat of the conversation. Is the fact that our communities and connections are getting bigger, with weaker connections, but more interactions, a good thing?

Every networker and social media practitioner would give a resounding “Absolutely!” to that question. I can see both sides to the argument, and think that there is no right answer to the question. It is a matter of perspective. Let’s dive into the sides.

Con: Maintain strong relationships; real community

First, let’s take the side that social media is giving people a false sense of community. This theme of communal consumption helps people connect with those who share similar experiences, but when it comes to bringing a group together, social media cannot be depended on alone. It takes stronger bonds- stable social relationships- to make a real community. That brings us to Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar’s number talks about “stable social relationships“. The number is said to be between 100 and 230,but commonly projected at 150. Groups around this number, it is said, is the limit the human mind has when it comes to remembering quickly the kind of relationship it has with others.

Now the other side.

Pro: Social media all the way!

The way social media is helping us connect is awesome. Whether it strengthens bonds or helps us form weak bonds, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, it is helping ideas get shared, it is helping people get organized, and is providing ways for information to be shared and gathered at a viciously fast pace. A writer from social media today went into great detail, and provided very good commentary about this very argument. They posed that Dunbar’s number, when it comes to social media, is irrelevant because social media is more about having a network than for building strong social relationships.

Once again, I think it’s all about perspective.

For example, a couple who met online will swear up and down that new and social media will be a part of their social fabric. A marketing professional will swear that though their on every social network imaginable, it’s because they need to be on it for business purposes. People use it to strengthen already strong bonds, or to incubate weak ones.

Can it be a generational issue too? It’s possible. I had a lunch with an older professional, and she posed the question of if there’s a negative effect of having too many LinkedIn connections, or too many facebook friends. Is there such thing as ‘too many’? Does the number show the reach you have, or that you’re a networking whore? I never looked at it that way before. But it seems to be many older professionals have that perspective. But I think that’s a totally different conversation.

I’d love to know your thoughts, though. Is there a certain number, or ceiling that humans will hit in social media? Is Dunbar’s number and it’s theory relevant?

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One thought on “Dunbar’s Number: Does it matter in the Social Media World?

  1. Pingback: Dunbar's Number: Does it matter in the Social Media World? « New … | Midia Social

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