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What’s the limit to the number of people you can maintain relationships with? What about online relationships? British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that 150 is the maximum number of people with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships. That theoretical limit is known to […]

What’s the limit to the number of people you can maintain relationships with? What about online relationships?

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that 150 is the maximum number of people with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships. That theoretical limit is known to sociologists and anthropologists as Dunbar’s number.

Might the number change when you’re talking about online relationships? Do tools like email, instant messaging, blogs, micro-blogs, and online social networks reduce friction and increase communication enough that the number of relationships you can maintain online might be greater than 150?

JP Rangaswami, who blogs at Confused of Calcutta, thinks his digital Dunbar number is higher than 150:

I’ve sensed that I have a Dunbar number of around 300 in the digital world, and I’ve been delighted to find I know most of the steady ones. Over the years I’ve actually met most of the community of readers, usually at conferences. The face-to-face contact, in turn, leads to a deepening of the relationship, and we land up creating and developing links in Facebook and Twitter. [I still land up with a smidgeon of LinkedIn requests, but to be frank the only reason I go to LinkedIn is to deal with Invitations to Connect.]

JP wants to get a conversation started about digital Dunbars and asks his readers:

How many Facebook friends do you have, how many regular readers of your blog, how many followers in Twitter, do you see a correlation between the three, if not why not, and so on. Do you tend to meet a core of this number on a face-to-face basis, if not why not? What other tools do you use, tools such as Dopplr and last.fm and netvibes and so on.

I’ve found I can comfortably follow only about 100 people on Twitter. Beyond that, I lose track of who people are and the experience feels more like noise than connecting. So I think my digital Dunbar might be below 150.

What about you? What’s your offline Dunbar number? Your digital Dunbar?

  1. Whatever my Dunbar number is, the online relationships make up part of that total. And I also think I’m Dunbar Challenged. My number (a total of all off and online socially stable relationsps) is probably 75 at the most

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  2. [...] Interesting article over at Web Worker Daily – I think my Dunbar number is low, probably about 100/120. Keeping track of all these relationships is difficult – but if you look around, the tools are out there to help you. [...]

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  3. I don’t think that “following” people on Twitter would be considered “stable social relationships”. A social relationship implies a two-way street, and in my book, one that I value with some significance. That’s not to say that online social tools can’t be part of real relationships, but you can’t just add up all the numbers and think it means anything.

    I’ve always been much more of a fan of relationship quality. What’s important is my family, my best friends, a few valued colleagues. People that transcend power relationships or quid pro quo. Quantity is irrelevant.

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  4. @Logical Extremes: that would depend on who you add as Twitter friends. I follow almost only people who I know in other ways — either in person or via some other electronic channel. They do largely represent stable social relationships to me.

    Quantity is not irrelevant when you’re talking about Dunbar’s number; it’s a limit not some sort of goal.

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  5. [...] not a regular reader of JP’s blog – discovered this post via Anne Zelenka at Web Worker Daily, but even if I was a subscriber, I would not consider myself a “friend”.  I might [...]

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  6. [...] minds than me have been blogging about Dunbar during the week including Matt Rutherford who introduced me to it. Anything that JP Rangaswami is [...]

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  7. For me at least, I think the limitation of Dunbar number is more of a mental one.

    Technology affects how quickly and efficiently I can communicate with a certain number of people. My limit, however, is not so much time, as memory. I can only remember details about the lives of so many people before I forget about them.

    Regardless of whether I get those details via my blog, micro-blog, email, phone, in person, whatever — I am still limited by the capabilities of my memory to remember those details and recall them when next I communicate with a friend. And isn’t that one of the most fundamental criteria for a meaningful social relationship?

    I guess technology can serve to remind us of some of those details (e.g. I can go back and review old emails to remember my friend’s boyfriend’s name and what he does for a living), so perhaps technology helps nudge one’s Dunbar number a bit higher, but I don’t think my number has significantly increased as I’ve come to rely more and more on technology.

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  8. [...] minds than me have been blogging about Dunbar during the week including Matt Rutherford who introduced me to it. Anything that JP Rangaswami is [...]

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  9. This post makes me feel better. I’ve always had this nagging feeling that, if only I were more organized, then I could keep up with more people. This post helps me to see that there are limits and that limits can be good.

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  10. [...] does that produce any real value on either end? I wonder. Twitter seems to be riding that line, and it’s interesting to watch [...]

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