Breaking Dunbar’s Number

March 6, 2007

I first learned about Dunbar’s number when I read “Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell (highly recommended).  The basic idea (described in detail here) is the number of people one could have stable relationships with.  The number as stated in the book and at Wikipedia is “150”.  So I ask then how can someone have over “350” (399 to be exact) connections in LinkedIn?

After some thought and some research on the Internet (I found this post from 2 years ago: Dunbar’s Triage: Too Many Connections) it led me to a very interesting post from more than 5 years ago.  Back before the popularity of MySpace, Facebook, Linked and other great networking sites (new favorite includes

Edge: The World Question Center
“How do we scale up the number of quality human relationships one person can sustain by many orders of magnitude? In an increasingly connected world, how does one person interact with a hundred thousand, a million or even a billion people?”

So, based on the above post the general idea would be that the software revolution that is occurring now will help us expand our network.  Somehow the blogs, linking sites, bookmark sites etc… will allow us to keep in touch with more people like the email we use has allowed us to communicate with more people then we used to when we just had phones (which in turn allowed us to keep in touch with more people then when all we had was written letters).

In order to believe this, you must truly believe that a human can connect with more than 150 people.  That all of our social interactions that occur on a daily basis can be “enhanced” by using the online world and these new applications that seem to be popping up on a daily basis.

I put my life into three main categories – my family, my friends and my job (If I am a good excellent time manager I may be able to slice a bit off the top and apply it to me).  With all of my time going to these three categories I find it hard to believe that I can have meaningful relationships with 150 people.  Logically this means 50 in each category.  Since I have a descent sized immediate family, I can see 30 there, and work certainly has 30-40  that would leave 80 or so friends.  I think that I would be a lucky person if I could have 80 people in my life at some meaningful level.

While I guess some of the tools available lets me maintain relationships but today, most of the people that I interact with on line are people that I interact with off line.  So, what part of this new communication architecture is a bit of sensationalism and what part of it is real?  Maybe for us (people in my generation) there are a lot of people who would disagree – those that find it comfortable meeting people online in anonymous chat rooms and through posts to sites.

The real answer is that people of my childrens generation will be a lot different.  They will live on the Internet.  All of their communications will be with people, they will not care of their location.  They will meet people online just like you meet someone at a bar or in a supermarket or at the local laundry mat.   They will not care that the individual lives 5 minutes away, 2o minutes away or across the world.  They will simply know “This person has something in common with me, because we have posted on the same blog, linked to the same article or have common connections through work, play or family”.

Before I wrote this I had no idea whether or  not I believed in the Dunbar number or if applications can enhance our communication with others.  After some thought (I sometimes do this through my writing) I can say that I  do believe that we are capable of enhancing communication and that we may also be able to extend our relationships beyond 150 people.  While I don’t think that it will be just the applications I do believe that we are changing.


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