Social Popularity May Not Be So Exciting

In 1992, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar wrote a paper in which he used regression data on his research on primates to determine that, based on the size of the human neocortex, the maximum number of people that one can really know is 148. That number was so insignificant in 1992 that it was rounded up to 150 to make it easy to talk about. Then came social media and lots of researchers started investigating this phenomenon’s impact on the way in which humans socialize. They now refer to this approximately 150 limit as Dunbar’s Number and you’ll hear it quoted, mis-quoted, and attributed to all sorts of famous people.

The reality is that we can only have meaningful relationships with a limited number of people. I have 406 connections in my LinkedIn network, but only 162 on Facebook. Casual business acquaintances make the list on LinkedIn where the Facebook people have refrigerator rights (or they went to high school or college with me). Even though it took a while for Dunbar’s research to get noticed, it’s triggering all kinds of experiments in social behavior online. What stands out is that we truly do have a limit (and it’s in the neighborhood of 150) to the number of people we can maintain a social relationship with. Once our network goes beyond the limit, it starts to splinter into sub-groups. Something not lost on Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Weiner. Both platforms have added the ability to group your friends into sub-groups.

It’s not the same, since your mental limit is about 150, not 150 at a time, but it will keep us linking and friending for a while longer. Interestingly, the Facebook average grew to 130 and stopped, even as more and more people joined. So, abandon the race to get 1 million friends, contacts, or followers. In the end, you can only have fun with about 150.


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