Facebook friends limited to 150 by the brain?

facebookAs anyone who’s ever heard me rant about the ‘numbers game’ side of networking – especially on sites such as Ecademy, Linked in or Facebook – will testify, I’m a great believer in quality rather than quantity, and until the software on such sites can do more for me than it currently does in terms of augmenting my memory and the cognitive abilities I apply when trying to remember ‘Is Fred interested in Mousterian Variability or is that Jill?’ then I use these sites to more conveniently keep in touch with roughly the same number of people I would via non computer based means.

So I was pleased today to read this item, suggesting that the brain has a top limit on how many people we can keep track of.   It’s called Dunbar’s Number and is suggested by anthropologist Robin Dunbar to be about 150.  It shouldn’t be surprising; it’s been realised for years that there are optimum sizes for small teams of between 6 and 10 people, which fits with the old military idea of the ‘Brotherhood of the table’ – the ideal size of a small, self contained, fighting unit being a section of about a dozen men.  In such small teams personal loyalties develop and the team bonds quickly.  Larger groupings are employed in companies, but few large companies now look to any ‘business unit’ as having more than a couple of hundred people in them, as management becomes impersonal and the whole unit becomes less effective.

I’ve held for many years, even before the advent of Internet social networking sites, that the quantity over quality brand of personal networking is more to do with train spotting, stamp-collecting or the MI5 Registry than it is to do with maintaining close and friendly business or social relationships.  The numbers approach reduces everything to the level of transactions -‘What can ‘x’ do for me today?’, or ‘I need to know ‘z’, who can help me?’  Whilst this is indeed part of social relationships, the more is beautiful version of social networking makes it all there is to having a network, which is painfully sad.

The natural extension to this approach is what we’re seeing now; many ‘numbers based’ networking sites end up as platforms for the exchange of low-value ‘opportunities’ between people, which are rarely of value to the recipient.  Spam may be too harsh a word, but what else can you call it?  If you have a network of 2,000 people, then you’re much more likely to feel OK about ‘cold calling’ them all than you would if you had a more tightly defined network of respected confidantes, friends and valuable professional associates.  Same on Twitter – it’s easy to spam 20,000 people with marketing messages in 140 characters because you simply cannot know them all.  You’re working as a publisher.  there’s nothing wrong with that but don’t fool yourself in to believing that your relationships with those 2,000 or 20,000 people are anything other than, in most cases, opportunities for you to push your message to them.

Of course, true relationships do develop from these large numbers of what I call ‘transactional friends’, but they enter in to the 150.  The vast majority of these thousands of friends and followers seem, therefore, to be just stamps in a collector’s album.

I for one don’t want to be a collector!

2 thoughts on “Facebook friends limited to 150 by the brain?

  1. I like the comparison to stamp collecting. I’ve also been working on, for an upcoming post, some statistics on follow through links from twitter. – I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at just how little of those 2000 odd collected friends ever notice what they are saying.

  2. Agreed – I have prunes every now and again, and dropped out of networks like Ecademy purely because I was feeling like a well licked sheet of paper. 🙂 I suppose the problem is that the more picky we get, the less revenue the networking companies can make via adverts, etc. and so the more likely it is that we will head towards paying for them!

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