About a month ago, I started writing a blog post that I never finished. It was about Dunbar’s Number, which explains a simple human limitation: we can only really care about so many people. Dunbar puts a limit on it: 150.
But thanks to Facebook and Twitter, we’re more easily connected to others than ever before. You don’t need a giant Rolodex anymore, just an active news feed and the latest version of TweetDeck. So I started wondering: I’ve got a few hundred Facebook fans and a few hundred Twitter followers. And that’s on top of my normal, Dunbar-defined circle.
I may not be a Supertasker, but could I be some sort of Supernetworker?
The résumé-deflating answer I came up with was, No, I’m not a Supernetworker, and neither are you. See, Dunbar’s theory creates circles, starting with your innermost circle of friends and expanding until you reach that outer circle of passive acquaintances.
Think of it this way: the inner circles will end up at your wedding. The outer circles might get a Christmas card (or maybe a Facebook birthday wall post). Social networking might bring you a few hundred or a few thousand additional connections, but the majority will remain in that outer circle — or beyond.
But I was hugely impressed to see a media outlet finally discuss the ramifications of social networking on Dunbar’s Number. It came in a Guardian piece that actually asked Robin Dunbar what he thought of his number’s role in the world of social networks.
I asked Dunbar if he saw anything in the evolution of online networks to suggest that the next stage might extend our social horizons in any meaningful way.
“The question really is,” he said, “does the technology open up the quality of your social interaction to any great extent, and the answer to that question is, so far: not really.”
Exactly. But that doesn’t mean these connections are worthless. As Clay Shirky points out in the same piece:
“What these games and applications do,” he says, “is extend and churn the edges of our network, which is often how new ideas are brought into it.”
So add those friends on Facebook. Connect with others on Twitter. They probably won’t be coming to your wedding, and they might not even end up on your Christmas card list.
But if you’re smart, those fringe circles might just help you create something that your circle of 150 never would have thought of.
You don’t have to be a Supernetworker. You just have to be a good listener.
- The closest thing I’ve heard of to a Supernetworker is Politico’s Mike Allen — who the New York Times describes as a one-man networking machine. He engages a huge network of contacts on a regular basis. But his closest friends also apparently don’t even know where Allen lives. So I’m not sure he’s the healthiest example of a normal human. ↩