Can You Beat Dunbar’s Number?

Can You Beat Dunbar’s Number?

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar's claims that the most people you can maintain stable social relationships with is 150. With many of us following people well in excess of 150, is there a way to beat Dunbar's number?

Paloma M. Vazquez
  • 3 march 2010

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s recently published book,  “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?” offers a theory proposing that the most people you can maintain stable social relationships with is 150. With many of us following people well in excess of 15o, does social media allow us to maintain reciprocal relationships with more people, and ultimately “beat” Dunbar’s number?

Dunbar asserts that the amount of time we invest in a relationship is proportionate to its quality, and that face-to-face relationships are simply unmatched by online ones.  That said, what online relationships are good for is to stall the decay of a relationship – for example, one with a person you exchanged contact info with after briefly meeting, but have not connected with regularly.  In the absence of lunch and a conversation, you can at the very least retweet his last blog post.

While it’s hard to argue with this logic, it’s also difficult to limit yourself to 150 Twitter contacts, or to prove there’s significant downside to following 330 contacts; let’s say – particularly if a great idea, or job posting, came from your 151st, or 234th contact.  Mathew May was inspired by both Dunbar’s Number and Gladwell’s Tipping Point when he started categorizing his Twitter network in lists based on Gladwell’s three categorizations:

  1. Connectors. Those who will get the word out, and an extraordinary knack for linking people across many different domains in their networks.
  2. Mavens. An information specialist and expert in a given subject matter. Mavens accumulate, create and share knowledge freely, and might help others solve problems by telling them how they solved their own. Authors and business leaders might fall into this category.
  3. Salesmen. Persuaders and successful ambassadors. Opinion leaders, news leaders, and any celebrity/personality connections may fall into this bucket.

One way of purportedly “beating” Dunbar’s number is by organizing your contacts around each of these categories, and by building each to account for more than 150 over time.

[AmEx OPEN Forum Via Brain Pickings]

image by respres


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