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Why Dunbar's Number is Irrelevant


Posted by on January 25, 2010

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?

  • http://www.rondegiusti.com/ Ron De Giusti

    I agree with you that having 150 strong ties seems a bit high.

    I personally have around 10 ties with people that I would consider “strong ties”. These are people that I know well and exclude family. Although they are friends, I also think I can call on them professionally.

    My “weak tie” connections currently sits around 150.

    I am new to “social media” though (i.e., Twitter, blogging, Facebook). I have only really started using social media this past Christmas.

    I wonder if my new found participation in “social media” will change those perceptions?

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Hi Ron,

      Yep I'm the same way I have just a handful of these strong ties as well. I'm sure as you continue to use social media tools you will see the number of weak ties increase rapidly for you. Thanks for stopping by!

      • http://www.rondegiusti.com/ Ron De Giusti

        Love your site.
        Love participating in the conversations.
        Thank you for creating a community to talk about social media!

  • mihaela_v

    From a business perspective: Agreed. Whether you look at things from a social network analysis or social capital perspective, the weak ties are very valuable – this is where ideas, opportunities, diversity come from. But this is the business perspective. For people who don't use social media for work (if they exist) Dunbar's number makes sense, and it may be something to keep in mind. Of course the language some networking sites use (“friends” instead of “connections”) is at the source of that confusion – assuming this confusion is real, which I don't really believe, but that's another question altogether.

    • http://www.russhenneberry.com/ Russ Henneberry

      This is a very interesting take — and you made your point very well. However, it seems to me that it takes both weak and strong ties to make your business work.

      I build my mainly through referrals — it generally takes a strong tie to gain a referral — but there are myriad of other ways that weaker ties can help build my business — links, email opt-ins, retweets, etc

      • http://prconnections.net/ mihaela_v

        Good point. So Dunbar's number is not irrelevant in business, either.

        • http://www.ifn365.com/ Jean-Pierre Levac

          External ties to a company like the ones in the business developer’s contact list will consist mainly of weak ties (Granovetter) but you want Dunbar’s number to be there internally to build a good team chemistry that will make your business stronger.

        • http://www.ifn365.com/ Jean-Pierre Levac

          External ties to a company like the ones in the business developer’s contact list will consist mainly of weak ties (Granovetter) but you want Dunbar’s number to be there internally to build a good team chemistry that will make your business stronger.

      • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

        Yes, you do need both strong and weak ties. I imagine it would be very hard to navigate the world of business on simply one or the other. This post isn't meant to assume that we no longer need strong ties.

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Absolutely, good point. Social networks have allowed us to build all of these weak ties with people (and some strong ones) and in the case of weak ties Dunbar's magic number does not apply.

  • http://edwardboches.com edwardboches

    Jacob:
    Dunbar's number is as old as ancient tribes. It's just a name for a basic truth. Native American tribes and many others have been known to split once they reach 150 or 160 for the simple reason that genuine connections and relationships are unmanageable after that number. I can recall my own company at that size. Everyone still knew everyone else by name and had a sense of who each other was. Agree with you also on the weak ties. Who do we initially friend on Facebook? People we know. Twitter is a little different as we connect to people via ideas and tribal like interests. Though again, studies show that we truly interact with fewer. Saw something recently that analyzed who people DM with. They can have thousands of followers but DM with only a handful. You can have thousands of names in your digital address book, but you text with just six or maybe 10. However, if you use social media right (Twitter lists is one way) you can actually establish and maintain the weak ties for the times when they matter. I have connections now on every continent, across different industries and segments of marketing. I can't possibly engage with all on a regular basis, but we know of each others' presence, knowledge, interests and willingness to help.

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Always good to hear from you edwards. Social networks in general allow us to connect via the click of a button, or in twitter's case without doing anything at all. I definitely only dm a small handful of people as well. Out of the 4300+ connections I have I barely know any of them, however they are still weak ties that I can reach out; oftentimes my network helps share my content and every now and then I will get a response or a comment from one of the irrgeulars. Exactly, as you mentioned your weak ties give your a much larger reach into various industries across the globe, knowing that you have a tie there is crucial. Thanks for stopping by as usual!

  • http://twitter.com/NealWiser NealWiser

    While the story about the Native American tribes (that Edward Boches mentioned) is probably accurate, Dunbar’s number can be drastically affected by tools, environment and personality. Ultimately however, the actual number of connections is irrelevant. What matters is the strength and quality of those connections. After all, what good is having 1500 connections or 15,000 if they are of no benefit to you (and I define benefit as anything from getting help with something to simple camaraderie)? Large numbers may be important or useful in some situations, but they have no intrinsic value.

    • http://www.rondegiusti.com/ Ron De Giusti

      I agree with you NealWiser.

      I remember hearing Warren Buffet say once (he was talking about brain power) that he would rather have a 200 horsepower motor and get 200 horse out of it than having a 600 horsepower motor and only getting 100 horse out of it.

      There is a correlation between the number of connections you have and how much you get out of those connections. And everyone probably has a unique number that works for them and/or their organization.

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      The thing with weak ties is you don't always know when they are going to benefit you. I have connections all over the world that I don't know about, yet if I find myself in Kuala Lampur one of these days then I know I can reach out to my weak ties. As I mentioned above my weak ties also help spread my content and this site pretty much exists because of weak ties (commenters such as yourself, my facebook friends, twitter followers, etc).

  • http://www.superiorpromos.com/ Promotional Products

    150 is very high. I don't know how you can maintain such great connections with so many people in this day and age. On the flip side, Dunbar never saw twitter and Facebook coming.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/leijstrom Hans Leijström

    Thanks for a great post Jacob.

    I belive that the Dunbar’s number still is a valid number to properly describe the offline world dilemma, i.e. communication is dependant upon co-precense (time and place) to be able to maintain stable relationships in real life (having dinner, go to pub etc.)

    The online world on the other hand only requires a shared virtual space (social software) to be able to create week and strong ties to other people (in terms of mutual enagagement). Hence, in theory it is possible to connect to all people in the world who are connected to the Internet, e.g. Bill Gates got 100 000 followers on his first day at twitter! In theory because social network sites such as Facebook has a friend limit of 5 000 (performance issues) and not everyone is found on Facebook nor twitter.

    I am currently using Gist.com (excellent service) to manage all my online connections from Facebook, twitter, Outlook etc. I would say that he avarege number of connections in Gist.com, the “Gist’s, number”, equals the new relevant number.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/leijstrom Hans Leijström

    Thanks for a great post Jacob.

    I belive that the Dunbar’s number still is a valid number to properly describe the offline world dilemma, i.e. communication is dependant upon co-precense (time and place) to be able to maintain stable relationships in real life (having dinner, go to pub etc.)

    The online world on the other hand only requires a shared virtual space (social software) to be able to create week and strong ties to other people (in terms of mutual enagagement). Hence, in theory it is possible to connect to all people in the world who are connected to the Internet, e.g. Bill Gates got 100 000 followers on his first day at twitter! In theory because social network sites such as Facebook has a friend limit of 5 000 (performance issues) and not everyone is found on Facebook nor twitter.

    I am currently using Gist.com (excellent service) to manage all my online connections from Facebook, twitter, Outlook etc. I would say that he avarege number of connections in Gist.com, the “Gist’s, number”, equals the new relevant number.

  • Carlos Pagliari

    Well, if I think on my Experience…You may have 5000+ Facebook’s friends, but subjects that you may discuss in deapth…>150 (less than 150…)…the others…you just get “Likes”…which You can not take to save your life or help you with hints to solve Your problems on a daily basis…