The Magical Number of Social Networking

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Don’t believe people when you see they have 2,000 friends on Facebook. They’re not fooling anyone.

In 1992, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar stated that as humans our brains can only connect to 150 people with whom we can have meaningful relationships. Any more than that and they just become blurry faces.

Image courtesy of pazarlamasyon.com

Image courtesy of pazarlamasyon.com

The number 150 is now called Dunbar’s Number. I recently stumbled on this information while reading a book for a journalism class.

The book (Tom Standage’s “Writing on the Wall”) mentioned how Dunbar’s Number is used in all kinds of social groups, like the military.

“The Dunbar Number is also the typical size of a military company, which generally includes between 120 and 180 individuals. A company in which everyone knows everyone else is a much more effective fighting unit.”

The same number can be found throughout history. From animal packs to Native American tribes. In an interview for NPR, Dunbar explains that the reason 150 is the optimal number for a community comes from our primate ancestors because “in smaller groups, primates could work together to solve problems and evade predators.”

While doing some further research on Dunbar’s Number I learned of Path, a mobile photo-sharing and messaging service founded in 2010 which build its “friending” around Dunbar’s Number. Path limits its users to 150 friends. Damn.

Would ditching Facebook and signing up on Path make your social networking experience more enjoyable? Think about it. No longer would you have to scroll past incessant posts about babies, pets and weddings. No longer would you have to read what Susie had for breakfast or that Kevin totally killed it at the gym today.

But then….where does (professional) networking fit in? Aren’t acquaintances sometimes beneficial? Don’t they sometimes turn into friends?

In terms of networking, quantity is usually “the bigger, the better”.

In an article on Social Media Today, writer Jacob Morgan brings to attention the words of Morten Hansen, the author of Collaboration. Hansen’s opinion on networking and social relationships is that weak social relationships are better than strong ones. He says:

“Weak ties are more helpful in networking, [they] form bridges to worlds we do not walk within.  Strong ties, on the other hand, tend to be worlds we already know; a good friend often knows many of the same people and things we know.  They are not the best when it comes to searching for new jobs, ideas, experts, and knowledge.”

It’s odd to think that your “strong” ties won’t get you anywhere but the guy you met once at an office party might hook you up with your next job. That actually happened to me but in my case it was an alumni from my university who came to speak to a small group of journalism students about portfolio building…and a year later she was the one I contacted about getting an internship at a local paper (which I got).

Dunbar’s Number is not a good idea when it comes to networking but I like how accurate it is in describing our “friending” patterns. After reading about this I checked how many Facebook friends I had and was pleasantly surprised when I saw it was 141.

So, I have a question for you. What if Facebook asked you to go through your contacts and delete your “friends” until you reached the 150 max. Who would make the cut?

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