Dunbar’s number, driven into our collective consciousness by pop social science, posits a limit for meaningful social relationships based on the capacities of the human brain. In social media circles, it is popular to explain why this limit – roughly 150 – is bunk.
However, I’m increasingly convinced that the number, and much, much smaller social groups, are the places where the work gets done, and that by focusing on how large we can grow our effective communities, we neglect opportunity. Dunbar’s theoretical limit is based on groups where each member is able to maintain a stable inter-personal relationship with the others. The underlying research also suggests that in dispersed networks, the number would be smaller. While we can hack this with social software, real understanding of those we interact with remains sharply limiting on our interpersonal relationships.
I regularly experiment with social software, and have also engaged in a number of activist campaigns and community groups. In each campaign, even if we reached a very large number of people, the core working group was under 10 people. These include an international marrow donation drive – where I worked with a core team of half a dozen on the Web publicity, and my 2009 run for Congress – where team of roughly seven did most of the coordination for larger, looser efforts. I’ve also been looking at the dynamics of Empire Avenue, a hyper competitive social network based on a virtual stock market comprised of its members. There, too, small working groups – even a handful of members coordinating closely, not the largest communities – even when well moderated, have the most influence.
This interesting 2004 article discusses Dunbar in relation to gaming and social networks. We can interact with and influence much larger political and social networks, but it is important to remember what Dunbar’s number really gets at – a well-oiled group aware of the complexity of each member.
Nothing too new here, just a reminder to focus your efforts. If all we are doing is looking at the big picture and the new horizons promised by social media, we may neglect the smaller, more meaningful communities in our lives.