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How ‘Dunbar’s Number’ can make or break a social network

Take a moment to think about what you expect from a social network. It doesn’t matter whether you’re thinking about one-size-fits all megaliths like Facebook and Twitter or a site for professionals or even the incredibly specialised niche sites Memeburn drew your attention to recently. It really all boils down to one word: Connections.

Connections, whether they be between friends, followers of celebrities or working professionals, are at the crux of every social network. So how would a social network “fail”? It’s largely when these connections are interrupted.

The factors that can cause this interruption are multiple but like I’d to explore one of them.

It has nothing to do with the failure of digital sales strategies, or a messy interface, or even dodgy backend coding, although all of those are, of course, important. Instead, what I am offering is a really interesting theory called ‘Dunbar’s Number applied to online social networks.

Dunbar’s whatnow?

Dunbar’s Number dictates that there is a theoretical limit to the number of other individuals which any one individual can cognitively relate to. Named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the number applies to monkeys, apes and humans. While studying primates, Dunbar noticed that the relative size of the neocortex (that’s the part of the brain which does actual thinking) in monkeys, apes and humans held a direct correlation with total size of a social group.

In humans the number of people that one person can meaningfully engage with is fluid, but is thought to average out at around 150.

So, what do monkeys have to do with Facebook?

How Dunbar’s number relates to online social networks is fairly obvious. However many friends, followers or connections you might have, your interactions on the social network will be limited to the same circle of 150 or so people. Research has already been done showing how consistent this number is on Facebook and Twitter.

How a social network, especially one which has the goal of connecting friends as its primary aim, might fail because of the inevitabilities of Dunbar’s Number, requires a little more explanation. More specifically, it requires some thought about the way social networks become popular in the first place.

Think back to when you joined Facebook. If you were one the advanced, early adopters, you were probably trying to get your close circle of friends to join you on the network. If you weren’t, then you were probably convinced to join because someone in your close social circle had asked you to or because everyone in your circle already had and you were feeling left out.

Because various groups within networks intersect at multiple points, the connections you made on Facebook may well have expanded outside of any one of your immediate social circles. Except with very careful, disciplined monitoring, such connections only widen as more and more people join the social network.

When Facebook automatically started giving you updates from the TV series, books and products you ‘liked’ then the connections you were making on the social network were definitely outside your circle of friends. After all, the connections being made won’t even be with actual people anymore.

The companies trying to actively make these connections are, of course, only doing so because Facebook, or any hypothetical social network for that matter, has become popular enough for them to invest time and money branding themselves on it. Ultimately, though, it’s more noise between you and your core social grouping.

When you find yourself losing updates from this core grouping in a sea of sponsored updates, from products or shows which aren’t easy to empathise with at the best of times, then you’re going to lose patience with said social network.

It’s a little bit like when you discover an exclusive new club. When you and your friends start going, you’ll feel cool because you’re among the few who know about it. Soon friends of friends start coming and then friends of friends of friends and so on. After a while, the club loses its appeal and your social group will migrate.

Our ancestors might have stood their ground and fought but this isn’t really possible on a social network which you, the user, don’t control.

Now, I’m not saying that Facebook is failing – far from it. You can’t say that about a network which 750 million or so active memebers.

There is a reason, however, that one of the most celebrated features on Google+ (we know, we know, it’s more than a social network) is the Circles function.

Think about that for a moment. The thing we like the most about a product which is supposed to change the way we use the internet, is a feature which lets us separate the news feeds of people we really like (friends), people we like a lot (acquaintances) and people we find vaguely interesting (following).

That’s how us being primates can make or break a social network.

Image 1: manleo

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart is the editor-in-chief of Engage Me Online. After pursuing an MA in South African literature, he spent five years reporting on the global technology scene. Intrigued by the intersection of technology and work, he joined Engage Me as the editor-in-chief. He is a passionate runner, and recently ran... More
  • Paul, you see what you’ve done there? You’ve given us your own personal opinion. Just as the reviewer, has given his. See the irony? Also, the argument of qwerty vs touch could be debated into the ground. My two cents, I despise physical keys. We all need to move on and embrace the future, which is touchscreen. 

  • People are also working on something in between Steven and Paul’s preference: http://www.techworld.com.au/article/400510/synaptics_working_more_advanced_touch_smartphones/

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