Why Dunbar's Number is Irrelevant
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.
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Principal and co-founder of Chess Media Group, a management consulting and strategic advisory firm on employee, customer, and partner collaboration. Author of "The Collaborative Organization," the first comprehensive strategy guide to emergent collaboration in the workplace- endorsed by executives such as the former CIO of the USA, CMO of SAP, CEO of Unisys, CMO of Dell, and dozens of others, ...