Social Nets and Dunbar’s Number

Neocortex (image: salviaforme)

Dunbar’s Number (Dn) is a theoretical “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”, according to this Wikipedia article about its originator; British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.  He proposed that this limit was a function of neocortical size, i.e that the ability of a person to understand  all of the complex relationships inherent in a community group was limited by the capacity of the neocortex to process the information.

Web 2.0 applications that promote social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are subject to some of the same social forces that govern our real life social interactions, so, if we ignore the “real vs. virtual” debate for the moment,  it’s reasonable to assume that Dunbar’s Number may apply here as well.

The theory doesn’t propose a precise number, but it’s generally understood to be approximately 150 individuals. Looking at “followers” lists on the social nets and blogs that I inhabit (or keep occasional tabs on), it’s hard to imagine that a single individual could count each of the thousands of listed friends or followers as participants in a meaningful relationship.  In Ashton Kucher’s twitterverse, for example, his aplusk twitter page currently lists 4,437,990 followers – but he’s only following 304.  Smart guy – he’s keeping fairly close to the Dn limit.

Blogger Seth Godin suggests that this is the reason social groups or tribes that exceed the Dn limit split in two soon after hitting it. It also explains the regular emergence of sub-sects in some religions – where a group of disgruntled disciples separates from a parent group to form their own version of religious devotion. (For a dissenting view to Seth’s blog look at the “Related Article” listed below).

It all comes down to how we define”relationship” as a concept.  It’s safe to assume that a reasonable number of Ashton Kucher’s millions of followers consider that they have some form of “relationship” with him just by picking up on his blog posts every day, but this is only from their own,  celebrity-fantasy-fuelled point of view. On his side, the mass of followers probably make good ego-building material and has great publicity-generating potential, but its highly unlikely he would consider this form of interaction as a relationship.

For me, it just has to be a two-way street.  And I really hate it when I recognise someone from my past who fails to equally recognise me.  Either I’m pretty forgettable (plausible) or they’re in the early stages of dementia (surely not!).  Or maybe I just happened to exceed their personal Dn limit.  OK, I think I’m going with the last one …

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