Blog Post

Open Thread: What's Your Digital Dunbar Number?

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 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?

11 Responses to “Open Thread: What's Your Digital Dunbar Number?”

  1. ~ender

    Depends on what’s meant by relationships.

    One of my friends was astounded by Ozzy Osbourne(? maybe it was another minor celeb like him) who he’d met in person once 10 years ago. Ozzy not only recognized him, and pulled the correct name out of memory, but also picked up the conversation where they left off, asking about relatives etc. Ozzy was meeting people publically, and probably meets 1,000s to 10s of thousands yearly. He might not get to talk to every single one of them, but still – that’s got to be rather large. Even if Ozzy doesn’t have to devote time to ‘work’ per se, and can devote all his time to relationships.

    So I think there’s a wide variability in an individual’s number. The average might be 150, and probably won’t go below 20 for mentally ‘average’ people, even if they don’t use their whole span. But conversely, I think there are some people out there who have *much* higher numbers, even if they don’t get the chance to use them all (limited hours in the day – e.g. Ozzy can’t talk to each person he knows, even if he can remember them, recognize them after years apart, etc, etc.).

  2. 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.

  3. Meredith

    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.

  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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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