Defying the Dunbar Number

Defying the Dunbar Number


When times are tough, networking is a survival skill. According to the latest data from comScore, the number of unique visitors at LinkedIn has shot up 22 per cent to 7.7 million, up from 6.3 million in December last year. Total time spent on the site has doubled in January to 96.8 million minutes, from 47.6 million minutes in December. It is safe to assume that the layoffs pounding the economy are a big factor behind the surge in the numbers for LinkedIn. Those who have recently lost their jobs and those facing uncertainty in their work place are frantically dusting off their CVs and connecting with their friends, family and professional contacts to boost their social capital.

The pace of growth of online networking sites, like LinkedIn, conjures up an interesting anthropological conundrum.  British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar argued that it is impossible for us to maintain meaningful social relationships with more than 150 people. His rationale was that social rituals of frequent contact, emotional closeness and maintaining a history of reciprocal favours are untenable when the group grows beyond 150 members. ‘150’ is thus called the Dunbar number in the field of social networks. Yet, it is not uncommon these days to find people with 500+ professional contacts on LinkedIn and 300+ social contacts on Facebook. That either means that the Dunbar number is not relevant anymore or that the relationships we forge on online social networks are not meaningful. I tend to believe in the former. In this post, I will explain why there is a need to double the Dunbar number to at least 300 to reflect the realities of the new hyper-connected Web 2.0 world.

In the case of online professional networks, improving career prospects is the primary motivation of professionals joining the network. This decision of joining is rationally calculated and made with the sole aim of building and watering one’s network. The social relationships one makes on such sites are defined as ‘weak ties’ because such relationships do not require the elaborate social rituals needed to maintain stable close ties. That doesn’t mean that weak ties are not meaningful. Research shows that an extended network consisting of weak ties is much more useful than family and friends when it comes to finding a job.

Informal social networks, on the other hand, attract people who want to forge strong ties with friends and family. The decision to join such sites is not a rational one, but an emotional one. People want to belong in a group and share their interests, passions and beliefs. Back in the day, people had to be in the same geographical region in order to be part of the same network. But now, one is able to connect back with long lost friends from college, living in Timbuktu.  Not just that, with micro-messaging, scrapping and tweeting, one is able to get in touch with everyone in his/her network in less than the time that it would take to pick up a phone and dial a number. This enables us to enjoy meaningful online relationships with a lot more than people than we are used to.

So what does this meaningful social hyper-connectivity mean for businesses? British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar argued that it is impossible for us to maintain meaningful social relationships with more than 150 people. Are we nchallenging this notion?

You already begin to hear people say that Facebook feels too heavy weight for keeping in touch with ones network, when one can do the same with 140 characters on twitter. In essence, the simplicity of twitter is winning over the complexity of Facebook. The new Dunbar number will force companies to focus on simple, manageable services that will help people maintain meaningful relationships online.

Business managers have to be keenly aware of the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ phenomenon now more than ever before. Understanding the dynamics of groups in terms of cognition, co-ordination and co-operation among group members will offer companies great clues in identifying opinion leaders and thus help them deliver targeted ad campaigns. Some companies like Amazon are using twitter to establish meaningful relationships with a sizeable group of followers (one that breaks the Dunbar number manifold), to whom they send fine grained messages for deals and sales.

Online networking sites have thus enabled us to defy the conventional Dunbar number, while enabling us to forge meaningful relationships online.

Hey! Someone is inviting me to bite chumps on Facebook. I am off to bond with my friends.


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