Why Dunbar’s Number is Irrelevant

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For those of you not familiar with Dunbar’s number it basically says that the most amount of people that you can maintain stable social relationships with is 150. According to wikipedia:

“Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.”

There have been several folks such as Chris Brogan who have talked about “beating Dunbar’s number,” but there is no need to do so and in fact I believe the whole discussion around this number as it related to social media and online networks is a bit irrelevant.



I recently finished reading Morten Hansen’s fantastic book on Collaboration in which he states that the real value of collaboration and of networks doesn’t come from strong relationships and networks but from weak one’s. In fact one of Morten’s network rules is actually “build weak ties, not strong ones.” According to Morten:

“But research shows that weak ties can prove much more helpful in networking, because they form bridges to worlds we do not walk within. Strong ties, on the other hand, tend to be worlds we already know; a good friends often knows many of the same people and things we know. They are not the best when it comes to searching for new jobs, ideas, experts, and knowledge. Weak ties re also good because they take less time. It’s less time consuming to talk to someone once a month (weak tie) than twice a week (a strong tie). People can keep up quite a few weak ties without them being a burden.”

When trying to think of the strong ties that I have I can maybe come up with just a handful, nowhere near approaching Dunbar’s number of 150. In fact I doubt many people have anywhere near 150 strong ties. Read the definition of Dunbar’s number above carefully to really understand what is being said there. Now, when I think about how many weak ties I have, well then it far exceeds the 150 number, but then again these weak ties are not “stable social relationships where I know who each person is and how each person relates to every other person,” therefore even referring to Dunbar’s number in this case is a moot point.

I have around 1k+ linkedin connections, 1k facebook friends, and over 4,300 twitter followers. A very tiny portion of these people are strong ties. What social networks have allowed us to do is to build massive networks of weak ties. I use these weak ties all the time to reach out to folks for guest articles, business requests, speaking engagements, or ideas and advice. The mere fact that we are connected to people online creates a type of weak tie because you can always reach out to the person you are connected with. This is something I do quite a bit when I’m traveling. I take a look at my network to see who I’m connected to in a particular geographical area, then I reach out to that person and try to arrange to meet in person.



We shouldn’t be trying to figure out how we can maximize the number of strong relationships we can build or how we can beat Dunbar’s number; that task is as fruitless as it is irrelevant. Build weak ties where you can because they are extremely valuable, more so than strong ties.

Your thoughts?

2 COMMENTS

  1. Right on Jacob. Totally agree. When we built our “connection model” in the Social Media Academy, we obviously had heated debates about network size, what is right and what is wrong. Is 4,000 connections great or too big or too small. Tony Hsieh (Zappos CEO) has way over 1 Million followers. And as you mentioned that capacity in our neo cortex in accordance to Dunbar became actually irrelevant.

    The NCP-Model (Axel’s Connection Model) helps to find a good answer.
    N=Network is important because you probably want an audience for your contribution (C) to the network. But if you just blast out information and hope something sticks, then you can go back to the old mrketing model. To be successful you want people who actively or passively participate (P) in your contribution. Now N (the network) gives you the reach! And P (participation) is the measurement for the success of your C (contribution).
    If you discuss your topics with twenty people you probably have less of a result than somebody who does the same with 200.

    But then it all depends on what you actually try to achieve. So the NCP model is a guide through that question. For some 250 connections would be a good number, or others 5,000 and then even 250,000 may be a way to low (just think of the presidential campaign).

    Axel
    http://xeesm.com/AxelS

  2. Jacob,

    I do understand Dunbar’s number and I will say that I disagree with a few points. First, I will recognize the value of weak ties, there is academic research that shows the value in networking and influence. Where you lose me is in the leap to “Build weak ties where you can because they are extremely valuable, more so than strong ties.” Sorry, but that sounds a little shallow. Strong ties are extremely valuable and you simply need to be cautious as they take investment of time and energy – that does not make them any less valuable.

    A second point, which I am not sure I understand is how a twitter follower is a relationship at all – not even weak. By your math, you suggest talking to weak ties once per month – are you saying you speak to 6,000 people a month? That was a bit of a joke, but there is something in the middle. Twitter fits into this discussion only a little. A weak tie suggests a relationship of some sort, correct? of the 4,300 followers, how many do you follow back?

    I would suggest that in the social universe we all live in that people bounce back and forth between a strong tie and a weak tie, depending upon the mutual benefit each sees in the relationship.

    Mitch Lieberman
    http://twitter.com/mjayliebs

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