Social network capacity

I’m just listening to this week’s /Talkshow, which features Leisa Reichelt talking to Stowe Boyd. I’ve been following Leisa’s blog Disambiguity since I came across her Ambient Intimacy concept, and been following her Twitters. One of those instances where social networking tools have produced a worthwhile strand of interest.

— wiggly flashback sequence —

A few months ago I was driving home from Hursley and listening to Radio 4’s comedy programme The Ape That Got Lucky (now out on CD! also available on iTunes). I actually only caught a single episode – the second one in the series – Social Development.

There’s a section of the programme (about 7m 20s in) where they discuss the limits of the size of crowds and tribes. It is obviously a comedy, so it is presented in a humorous manner, but I found the discussion quite intriguing. The idea is that tribes used to expand in size to around 80-120 in number, but that was as large as they ever got… and even today, our brains are configured to cope with around the same number of people as acquaintances as our primitive ancestors were. Today we live in “super tribes” in cities, but we still have a limit to the number of people we can cope with… so now we break our networks into smaller tribes: associating with clubs, countries, cities and so on.

I immediately began to think about social networks. How many acquaintances can I reasonably keep track of?

— end flashback —

This same concept – the Dunbar constant of 150 – comes up in /Talkshow (about 9m in)… do the new social networking tools allow us to stretch the number? Can we keep up with more people?

My Sametime list at work probably has a few hundred people in it, but I still only regularly keep in touch with around 10 people via IM. If I look around at my online presences, I have the same groups of people in my lists on Last.FM, Twitter, Dopplr and other networks – and the sizes of those lists are relatively limited – so I probably do keep up with some people better. I think I would find it difficult to keep up with more than around 150, and certainly “intimately”. I’m increasingly relying on the ability to annotate contacts in my IM list to remember where I met them, what I know them for… a sure sign that my brain is running out of capacity for remembering things!

I’m fairly sure that the Dunbar number does apply to social software. I’m loving the network I have, but this week I started to reject people on LinkedIn and remove some people from Twitter as I couldn’t take in all the information – it was becoming noise, or I didn’t feel I’d be able to maintain the relationship well enough. The challenge is that I don’t want to allow this to prevent me from reaching out to new people in the future. I need to start trimming the list of feeds I read, for instance, to make room for new ones.

I’ve mentioned before that social networking tools have enabled me to enrich my physical network. I come back to the point that it is important to maintain a network, and develop it, through meetings in person where possible… dovetailing neatly into the fact that I’m getting together with Al Wood this evening, thanks to some monkchips-originated winedrinking, and subsequent blogging and Twittering 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Social network capacity”

  1. This is a fascinating topic! I have been thinking about this a little bit myself. I’ve gotten a bit selective about who I accept as a friends on some networks, but most tend to be the same people, similar to you.

    I’m sure I don’t have nearly as many connections as you, but I do believe that your networks need to be managed, even online. This does take a certain amount of time. I’ve even started thinking about how I wanted to use each network I join. For example, something like LinkedIn I would want to keep reserved for people I actually have worked with and know personally. MySpace tends to be more for people I went to college with (with a few others thrown in), and Facebook is turning into something more for grad school contacts. I think it helps my sanity a little to keep some of my networks separated like that.

    Lots of great things to think about though!

  2. So I guess when it comes to subdividing or separating our networks (which I do to some extent, as well)… are we extending the Dunbar number, or do we still have an aggregate of ~150 people across all the networks? I would argue that it is an aggregate.

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