If you are not familiar with Dunbar’s Number, let me explain it before we get going here.
Dunbar’s Number, also referred to as the Cortex Ratio, is the brainchild concept coined by Robin Dunbar in 1992. Dunbar is currently the professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. He claims that human’s brains are only capable of managing a network of 150 people.
This does not mean people you know (obviously most of us come in contact/meet way more than 150 people throughout a lifetime) but the people you maintain genuine relationships with on a regular basis.
By studying the social formation and group cohesion of primates, Dunbar determined that the neocortex, the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language, could only manage a social circle of 148.7, or in whole person numbers, 150 friends.
Enter: Social Media
More recently, Dunbar’s Number has come under criticism from some who believe that social media and networking online makes Dunbar’s Number irrelevant.
Multiple works, including Collaboration by Morten Hansen, discuss the fact that weak relationships are not only important but necessary, because those weak relationships are what enable us to extend our current circles, and because we can keep more than 150 ‘weak’ ties very easily.
“Strong ties…tend to be worlds we already know; a good friend often knows many of the same people and things we know…Weak ties are also good because they take less time. It’s less time consuming to talk to someone once a month (weak ties) than twice per week (strong ties). People can keep up quite a few weak ties without them being a burden.”
To a certain extent, I agree here – social media does allow us to maintain a huge number of weak ties, like how Facebook announces birthdays and anniversaries, and you can follow what your friends are doing by looking at their Twitter or Facebook posts, without actually having to speak to them.
Honestly, for some ‘weak-tie’ friends, the only way I contact them is through social media – I don’t even have a few people’s phone numbers. How is that for weak?!
Other social media gurus also challenge the relevancy of Dunbar’s Number in today’s social media world.
Check out rebuttals from Jacob Morgan of Social Media Today here. Also, Chris Brogan’s “Beating Dunbar’s Number” article, seen here, discusses how not to deal with Dunbar’s Number, but how to organize your contacts to keep ‘strong’ ties with way more than 150, which Chris has to do in his profession. In addition to these, there are countless other articles that dispute Dunbar’s Number.
Questions, Comments, and Your Opinion, Please!
Obviously there are so many questions left unanswered here. Dunbar himself has expanded his investigations to include the phenomenon of social media and its effect on his earlier theories.
A few questions I have included:
-Do social networks only allow us to build weak ties with other people? Or do they allow you to have such a deep understanding of that individual that we don’t need to ‘check in’ with them more than once a month (Morten’s definition of how often we check in with a ‘weak’ tie friend).
-What does gender have to do with maintaining relationships? Are women better at this than men? Why?
-Since people tend to exaggerate about themselves on the internet, can you ever move from a ‘weak’ to a strong tie with someone only using social media? Or do you have to actually meet that person to increase your bond with them?
The questions are endless, so I found a couple videos that should help us to try to figure this all out. First, for a brief (5 minutes, really) introduction on the concept of Dunbar’s Number, delivered by Professor Dunbar, click the Play button below.
After you watch the video, tell us what you think!
For More Information:
If you’re looking for a longer explanation on the concept of Dunbar’s Number, click here. This 23 minute long video is excellent as Professor Dunbar explains his theory in relation to social media. Check that out, here.
And lastly, in case you’re interested at the background of the Dunbar Number, you can check out Dunbar’s past research, with many live links to articles, on his faculty page at Oxford University – Click here.