THE LIMIT UNDER ASSAULT
All of this calls into question the received wisdom that the maximum number of relationships any individual can hope to have with others is about 150. It’s known as the Dunbar Number in honour of Robin Dunbar, the Evolutionary Psychologist who advanced the concept. He interest in the topic was kindled when he was studying social groupings among monkeys and apes, where he found a connection between the sizes of the individual neocortexes of the animals, and the size of their social group. He then extrapolated these findings to humans (we are their cousins after all), and based on the size of our neocortex, calculated that social relationships with more than 150 people at a time is not possible for humans. So 150 is the Dunbar Number.
At first blush, the Dunbar Number may look outdated in this day and age. And it appears that a case can be made about technological advancements effectively shattering all existing limitations in making friends, ‘friending’, to put it in Facebook parlance.
There are also others who caution about viewing the Dunbar Number as an absolute limit, and point out that a distinction should be made between people whom we directly know (which again is split into strong and weak ties), and those who are in our networks.
THREE DEGREES OF CONNECTIONS
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has tried to promote the terms First-, Second-, and Third-Degree connections through his book The Start-Up of You. The First-Degree consists of people whom we directly know, and the Second-Degree is made up of friends of friends, not all of whom we may know. Finally, there’s the Third-Degree, which is all about friends of friends of friends (whew), which really stretches the extent of people whom we can potentially leverage, without knowing them in person.
So what’s the conclusion on the Dunbar Number? Is it still relevant? A couple of years ago, the editors of The Economist magazine had the same doubt, and decided that the best place to clear it would be Facebook itself. So they knocked on the doors of Cameron Marlow, the resident Sociologist at Facebook, and asked him to crunch some numbers (‘Primates on Facebook, The Economist, Feb. 26, 2009’). Marlow found that the average number of ‘friends’ on the Facebook network is 120, which seems to agree with the Dunbar hypothesis. But since some people had very large networks the magazine concluded that the finding didn’t prove the Dunbar hypothesis. But again Marlow gave them one more interesting insight: the number of people with whom the average male on Facebook interacts is a lowly seven. Women do better, at 10! The interactions considered were comments in the Wall, photos, status updates, etc. When two-way interactions were considered (emails, chats, etc.), it was found that the average guy has time for only four people, while women were a little more generous, finding time for six!
Based on all this, The Economist editors seemed to be hinting that to use the word ‘friends’ to describe people in someone’s Social Network would be a bit rich. In their view, what’s now going up is merely the number of casual contacts that people track passively. “Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently, but they still have the same circles of intimacy as ever,” they concluded.
Now what’s your Dunbar Number?