You Get 150 Friends. Choose Them Carefully.

There’s so much noise about social networks. It’s become tiresome to say the least. Yes, I know I’m adding it to daily. I can’t help it it seems. Soc nets are transforming media, so I’m interested, despite the droning from social media experts and the love-hate fascination of mainstream media.
Yet, there’s a fundamental question that doesn’t get addressed that often. How are these soc nets changing the game for us as individuals? Do we have more friends now?
The answer in this well written article in The Economist appears to be “no” (we don’t have more friends).

Several years ago, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who now works at Oxford University, concluded that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop. Extrapolating from the brain sizes and social networks of apes, Dr Dunbar suggested that the size of the human brain allows stable networks of about 148. Rounded to 150, this has become famous as “the Dunbar number”.
Many institutions, from neolithic villages to the maniples of the Roman army, seem to be organised around the Dunbar number. Because everybody knows everybody else, such groups can run with a minimum of bureaucracy. But that does not prove Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis is correct, and other anthropologists, such as Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth, have come up with estimates of almost double the Dunbar number for the upper limit of human groups. Moreover, sociologists also distinguish between a person’s wider network, as described by the Dunbar number or something similar, and his social “core”.

The Economist asked Cameron Marlow, the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook, to crunch some numbers and reveal the behavior of FB members. See the article for the results, but the conclusion is this: people with lots of soc net friends do increase the number of people they “track passively,” but one’s core network (the people one actually interacts with on a regular basis) remains small and steady.
Additonally, I’m intrigued too by the mention of grooming in the article.

Primatologists call at least some of the things that happen on social networks “grooming”.

In my opinion, grooming one’s friend list is nothing to feel bad about. Go ahead and slim it down!



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.