The limits of personal social networks

‘Does digital technology in general allow you to retain the old friends as well as the new ones and therefore increase the size of your social circle?’ The answer to this question seems to be a resounding no, at least for the moment,” states Dr. Robin Dunbar in a recent interview for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Dunbar’s proposition originates from his work in the limitations of personal social networks. Professor of Evolutionary Psychology and head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, Dr. Dunbar began his career studying the behavior of social grouping in Geleda monkeys before transitioning to studying the limits of human social networks. Before online networks were open to study, Dunbar used greeting cards as a signifier for meaningful social relationships. Famously, his study, conducted with Russell Hill, found the average threshold for maintained social connections was a resounding 150.  This number has since become popularized as the maximum number of individuals with whom someone can have a genuine social relationship.

The “Dunbar Number” has been supported through other anthropologic inquiries into self-governing communities, organizational structures in business, and throughout Western military history.  It has also, however, been challenged as reductionist. Duncan Watts, a network theorist,  research scientist at Microsoft and part of the pre-network of Opening Government,  argues that Dunbar’s model reduces the complexity of social circles. Whether trying to provide the best package for maintaining the 150 or to build or categorize beyond it, social media developers have turned to Dunbar’s work for guidance.

Facebook, Asana and Path have all pulled from Dunbar’s work to help direct online applications that support or, as is becoming more frequent, supplant face-to-face communication dynamics. Mobile photo-sharing and messaging application Path limits users to 150 friends precisely due to Dunbar’s findings. Dave Morin, Path co-founder, used Dunbar’s work and consulted with him personally while developing Path’s model of best serving the 150; a model starkly oppositional to Facebook’s popular accumulation model.  Dustin Moskovitz, one of Facebook’s co-founders, and Justin Rosenstein have used Dunbar’s number as a challenge in their development of Asana, an internal networking and organizational tool for businesses. Where Path wants to best serve the 150, Asana wants to increase Dunbar’s Number while encouraging depth of connection. This represents the larger impact of Dunbar’s findings on Silicon Valley: to grow or maintain the 150 directly impacts decisions in service and product development.

While Dr. Dunbar maintains that he doesn’t see the 150 standard of true social relationships growing anytime soon, he has previously affirmed that digital technologies help people keep in touch. The crucial deficit in these technologies, he attributes to their inability to translate the value of in-person connectivity.  “Language, he says, is how humans used their big brains to get to 150. And until something as revolutionary as that comes along, 150 is where he thinks we’ll stay.”

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