Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Dunbar’s Number

If the idea behind this Dunbar’s number is correct, what does this say about the way most of us deal with blogging, social media, community, social status, and online friendship?

(via 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 restrictive 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.

Dunbar’s number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again.

19 Comments

  1. depends on how much down time one has and whether one has an iphone or bberry.

  2. I have more to give when I reign in my gabbing below the Dunbar number. Though more power to those who can manage to sustain a reach beyond that.

  3. It’s definitely an interesting concept. I might be inclined to agree? I think I need to know more about the definition of a stable relationship though.

  4. You must have a huge neocortex, because I can’t believe how many people you are able to maintain relationships with here, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Maybe you’re the exception that makes the rule.

  5. It all depends on how much you put into it, I guess.

  6. “A friend to all is a friend to none.” -Aristotle

    I dunno, Neil. I count my close friends on my fingers and my valued acquantainces with my toes. I think it’s the quality of the sustained interaction that matters most- intent, motive and enjoyment. Be that by the tens, hundreds or thousands. Human capacity is only limited by our choices, whichever way we go.

  7. I bet that it is accurate, and that some “real life” friendships drop to the wayside in favor of the safer online interactions. I bet that only 150 of the interactions are truly meaningful and the rest superfluous or superficial.

  8. Well, adding to the qouted text,”Dunbar has argued that 150 would be the mean group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together. For a group of this size to remain cohesive, Dunbar speculated that as much as 42% of the group’s time would have to be devoted to social grooming.” – the reality is that while blogging, social media ‘can’ create intimate relations it’s more of a tool to meet than much else. Not sure I see a ‘high incentive’ to stick together other than the need to have a voice, be heard and otherwise quell whatever luggage someone is carrying around (loneliness?). Maybe it’s social grooming though; each hit on your site is another mite picked from your scalp.

  9. The way most of us deal with blogging, social media, and online friendships is very different than the way you do.

    Most of us have fewer readers, fewer commenters, and fewer online friendships. I have a very real sense of my limits in terms of the number of people I can interact with in any meaningful way, online and in real life. I weigh the value of the relationship (not the PERSON but the relationship) based on what I have to offer and what they seem to have to offer in return. I suspect my number of relationships is probably close to 150, including all those on the periphery, family, and friends. My limit is probably less than that, actually…

  10. had not heard about this number before, and it makes some sense, each person has to have a limit for how accessible information about friend X is retrievable. it goes beyond the social web, because if anything, facebook allows me to remember birthdays i could never keep in mind (even with a calendar)

  11. hmmm, i think 150 is on the high end. mine seems to hover between 20-50…or that is all i can seem to care about and still live life outside of the vacuum.

    and yes, neil, you are one of the number.

    maybe my low tolerance is why i cannot stand fb.

  12. From the title of this post I was getting ready to read about the area code of a town in West Virginia, or possibly how governmental restrictions have essentially ‘gotten the number’ of said town….but this is interesting too.

    Interestingly, 150 people is just about the perfect size for a church (or other religious/spiritual) community. Larger than that and people lose track or can ‘hide’ in sheer numbers, smaller and it’s tough to keep the momentum going.

  13. Judging by my Facebook numbers, this may be fairly accurate.

  14. ugh. i don’t even like to think about putting numbers to my social life. if i think about it to much i’m going to go crawl under a rock and die.

  15. Hi Neil, this is an interesting concept and I am guessing that when the number was created social networking wasn’t around, nor were the iPhone and Blackberry. Another thought to consider when contemplating the maximum capacity of ones social circle would be the quality of relationships being sought and personality traits including introversion and extroversion. Interesting concept, thanks for posting this, great food for thought!

  16. I agree with Dunbar.

  17. Along the lines of Finn, by this token, no one should have more than 150 friends on Facebook unless they’ve declared themselves ruler of all Facebook friends.

  18. I think mine is at about 3. More than that, and I lose it and have to have a nap.

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