Why we can’t have more than 150 friends and still need more than that

Everyone’s talking about “social”: “social networks”, “social media”, “social web”, “social games”, “social apps”, social everything, increasingly culminating in the idea of “social business”. But what does it mean to be social in this context? Are you more social when you have 1,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook rather than just 100? It certainly seems that way when looking at many social media success stories.  However, can you actually be social with 1,000 or more people? Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford,  believes that the cognitive limit to the number of individuals humans can maintain social relationships with is at 150. Much to the professor’s surprise, “Dunbar’s number” has made a considerable career on the Internet, certainly helped by the popularization of his findings through Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Tipping Point” and supporters such as marketing guru Seth Godin. Still, Dunbar’s number is not yet common knowledge, and among those who know it, it’s meaning is controversial. So, I figured it’s worth looking into the concept and its possible applications for business communications.

Based on studies with primates showing that there is a correlation between the size of their social groups and the size of their brain’s neocortex, Dunbar speculated in a 1992 paper that this correlation could be extrapolated to humans and predicted a group size of approx. 150. He then compared this number with data on social group sizes in human history such as the sizes of villages, tribes or units in ancient armies and found his hypothesis confirmed (within a band of variation). In a 2002 study, he also examined the “social network size in contemporary Western society based on the exchange of Christmas cards”, and again,  the “maximum network size averaged 153.5 individuals, with a mean network size of 124.9”.

If 150 is indeed the maximum of stable inter-personal relationships humans can maintain, Dunbar’s number also explains why larger groups don’t work without additional structures such as hierarchies or laws to organize the relationships. This is what Malcolm Gladwell picked up on pointing out that organizations suffer from a sharp productivity loss when growing larger than 150 employees. As a result, companies such as Gore, the manufacturer of Gore-Tex fabrics, organized their teams in smaller groups, so that they could keep strong working relationships.

Social GroomingFinally, managing more than 150 stable relationships would not only go beyond the brain’s capacity but also take too much time. In that regard, humans face the same challenge as primates: social grooming is laborious! It has been suggested, though, that humans might be able to increase the number of relationships with the help of social media, since it makes it easier to memorize a relation’s origin and then stay in touch, even over large distances. Dunbar counters, though, that dependable relationships need in-person meetings and social media still doesn’t remove the biological constraints (see for instance this video interview Dunbar had with the Guardian). And indeed, a recent study by Gonçalves, Perra and Vespignani (August 2011) validated Dunbar’s argument. They modeled activity of 1.7 m users on Twitter over six months and found “the data in agreement with Dunbar’s result; users can entertain a maximum of 100-200 stable relationships.”

Does this mean any number of social network connections larger than 150 doesn’t make sense? Well, it depends on what you are trying to achieve.  For instance, a mobile social network company called Path limited the number of friends users can have on their network to 150 (with reference to Dunbar), since their service is built for circles of close friends. That’s understandable. However, as early as 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter pointed out that not only those people you are closely connected with are important for your network. In fact, they might even bring less value to it, because they probably know the same people and things that you do whereas your wider network of weak ties might open up access to new information and new networks. On a larger scale, the component of weak ties supports the concept of crowdsourcing as famously crafted by James Surowiecki back in 2004: If you really want to extract the wisdom of crowds, diversity is one of the critical success factors, and you will only get it out of a wide network with weak ties.

So, from my perspective, Dunbar’s number is certainly a factor business communicators have to take into consideration. If you want to have a group of people interact and collaborate productively to get things done, the size of this group shouldn’t go beyond Dunbar’s number. Making this group larger might lead to a loss in productivity, because an increasing amount of “noise” in the system can be distracting and will increase the need for coordination and filtering. Also, large numbers of followers or “fans” shouldn’t be mistaken as a proof of social interaction that is by default allowing for stronger relationships than traditional reach. Dunbar has shown that stable interpersonal relationships can’t be managed in large numbers, unless you do it one Dunbar group at a time. IBM employees, for example, operate thousands of internal and external social media platforms creating tens of thousands strong ties inside the organization and outside-in.

Conversely, if the goal is to open up a specific business unit or the whole organization to innovation, it is necessary to go far beyond the Dunbar number and include weak ties. In fact, too many strong relationships within the crowd you are working with will threaten the diversity needed to go beyond existing approaches. Online communities in particular are threatened by the “echo chamber effect“, because once a claim is made by one participant it’s extremely easy to have it repeated by like-minded people, resulting into the reinforcement of their beliefs and possibly hindering critical discourse. Memes or myths  are being created as a result and can block the way for innovation. In addition, the echo chamber effect can be aggravated by algorithms homogenizing search results within social networks, a phenomenon Eli Pariser called the filter bubble. In fact, I sometimes do have the impression that we as business communicators do suffer from the echo chamber in our social networks, because a Dunbar group is reinforcing myths such as  the loss of control on the social web at conferences and on the web. Thanks to Dunbar and others, we can better understand these mechanisms. It is a whole different discussion how to create a wide network with weak ties allowing for diversity and then aggregate the ideas for innovation. Perhaps, a discussion for another post. This one has already been long enough!

Georg Kolb


Germans were late to social media but caught up in 2007/2008

Exhibit 1: Germany in Universal McCann's latest  Social Media Tracker, Wave 4, July 2009. Wave 3 was in Mar 08, Wave 2 in Jun 07, Wave 1 in Sep 06

Exhibit 1: Germany in Universal McCann's latest Social Media Tracker, Wave 4, July 2009. Wave 3 was in Mar 08, Wave 2 in Jun 07, Wave 1 in Sep 06

Series on Germany, post #2

When it comes to social media, adoption rates on almost any platform in Germany have long been much lower than in other countries. That suddenly changed between 2007 and 2008.

Universal McCann’s Social Media Tracker reported that between June 2007 and March 2008 the percentage of active internet users in Germany reading blogs more than tripled from 15 % to 55 %, also those writing blogs jumped from 8 % to 28 % and those creating a social network profile more than doubled from 19 % to 41 %  (see exhibit 1).

This rapid increase was also confirmed by Nielsen’s Global Faces and Networked Places in March 2009. Nielsen found that within their global study Germany had seen the greatest increase in online reach of social networks between December 2007 and December 2008 (see exhibit 2).

Of course, growth rates don’t tell the whole story. Looking at the absolute numbers, Germany is still somewhat behind, but not as far as some people think. In the next post we will compare social network activities in absolute numbers by country.

See also related posts:

Exhibit 2: Nielsen: Global Faces and Networked Places, March 2009. Increase in member communities (social networks and blogs)

Exhibit 2: Nielsen: Global Faces and Networked Places, March 2009. Increase in member communities (social networks and blogs)


Social media as a global phenomenon – recent discoveries

Two years ago, media agency Universal McCann started the most extensive global survey on social media I am aware of. Since then they went through three waves, each time significantly broadening their data base:

Wave 1 – September 2006 – 7,500 Internet users – 15 countries
Wave 2 – June 2007 – 10,000 Internet users – 21 countries
Wave 3 – March 2008 – 17,000 Internet users – 29 countries
Wave 4 – scheduled for late 2008

The 80 page report on wave 3 is downloadable for free.

Here are the highlights of the study as summarised by the authors:

  • Social media is a global phenomenon happening in all markets regardless of wider economic, social and cultural development. If you are online you are using social media
  • Asian markets are leading in terms of participation, creating more content than any other region.
  • All social media platforms have grown significantly over the three Waves
    • Video clips are the quickest growing platform, up from 31 % penetration in Wave 1 to 83 % in Wave 3
  • 57 % have joined a Social Network, making it the number one platform for creating and sharing content
    • 55 % of users have uploaded photos
    • 22 % of users have uploaded videos
  • The widget economy is real
    • 23 % of social network users have installed an application
    • 18 % of bloggers have installed applications in their blog templates
  • Blogs are a mainstream media world-wide and as a collective rival any traditional media
    • 73 % have read a blog
  • The blogosphere is becoming increasingly participatory, now 184 m bloggers world-wide
    • The number one thing to blog about is personal life and family
  • China has the largest blogging community in the world with 42 m bloggers, more than the US and Western Europe combined
  • Social media impacts your brand’s reputation
    • 34 % post opinions about products and brands on their blog
    • 36 % think more positively about companies that have blogs

These findings are truly impressive. However, it’s important to put them into the right context. With 17,000 people surveyed the sample is huge, but it only represents “active Internet users” as defined by Universal McCann: people aged 16-54 who are using the Internet every day or every other day. As a result, when looking at the findings more specifically, two parameters should be considered: 1.) the Internet penetration of the respective markets, 2.) the share of the sample in the overall population aged 16-54. Thankfully both sets of numbers are provided in the report.

Also, while the usage of social media tools went up across the board, it’s interesting to see how the pace of adoption varied between the tools. Watching video clips has passed reading blogs as the most often used tool, even if the speed of it’s growth went down a bit. The latter doesn’t really come as a surprise, since the reach of video clips is now at the high level of 83 %. By contrast, downloading podcasts, creating social network profiles and subscribing to RSS feeds have all significantly accelerated their pace since the last wave, albeit on a much lower level than watching video clips (see graph “Reach over time”).

There are also interesting shifts in the development of some markets. I felt encouraged when looking at the country-by-country results, because the findings confirmed the analysis I presented in the first post on this blog: if we want to understand the development of the new publics in the world of social media, we not only need to consider the underlying technologies, but their interdependency with the economic framework and the socio-political environment. Here are just some anecdotal observations.

For instance, South Korea commands the largest broadband network on the globe, their Internet penetration (70.2 %) is among the highest. There is no doubt that this formidable technology infrastructure helped to make South Koreans the world leading blog readers (92.1 %), blog writers (71.7 %) and keen social networkers (70.3 %). However, technolgy alone doesn’t explain the level of participation in Asian markets. E.g. China’s internet infrastructure is not as developed, with 12.3 % the penetration is among the lowest on the planet, and users are being observed and censored. And yet the Chinese are on rank 3 as blog readers (88.1 %) and writers (70.3 %) and significantly above the global average (58.8 %) as social networkers (64 %). By comparison, the Dutch enjoy the highest internet penetration of all markets surveyed by Universal McCann, but they are below average (70.2 %) as blog readers (67.7 %) and way off as blog writers (27.1 %), then again their participation in social networks (61.4 %) is above the global average (58.8 %). So, there certainly is a correlation between the socio-political environment and the adoption of specific social media patterns. You can’t explain this with technology only.

Another layer of complexity is added by changes of country patterns over time. Just check out my fellow countrymen, the Germans! They used to be notorious blogging laggards, but finally they seem to take the Autobahn. Within less than a year, the share of active Internet users in Germany reading blogs more than tripled (see red circles), the share of German blog writers more than quadrupled (purple circles). No such development can be found in France which used to be the by far leading blogging nation in Europe. As a matter of fact, in terms of blog readership France is now matched by both Italy and Spain, and in terms of blog writers, Spain has taken a 10 % lead over France. Given all these differences and the rapid pace of the development, we need to map things out again and again as we go. It is a new Age of Discovery indeed.

There are many more insights to be found in Universal McCann’s global social media tracker, but I will close with one final observation. People are looking for places where they can unite all the things they are doing on the Internet and share it with their friends. For many users this place is currently their social network. However, social networks will only be able to keep this privileged position, if they become open enough for users to share whatever they created and whereever they created it. Otherwise people will find other places for their social ecosystem. Early adopters are already exploring social aggregators like FriendFeed that allow to present all their own and their friends’ content in one view. More discoveries to be expected!

Georg Kolb