You Can’t Handle More Than 150 Friends: Living Dunbar’s Number

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized that there’s a limit to the amount of relationships a person can maintain—roughly 150. Although the exact number is widely debated, the theory stands. Some people have embraced this concept on social media platforms by self-imposing friend limits.


Dunbar’s Number

noun : a theoretical limit to the number of people with whom any individual is able to sustain a stable or meaningful social relationship—considered to be roughly 150

Dunbar’s theory is rooted in neurology: “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.”

What If You Followed This Philosophy On Social Media?

One of my favorite minds in the social media marketing industry does exactly that. Adam Kmiec introduced the concept to me a year ago, and I’ve been fascinated with it ever since. Technology has evolved rapidly over the past 100 years, but biologically we progress much slower. We are sometimes inhibited by these physical and neurological limitations.

Adam Kmiec

Adam Kmiec
Director, Global Digital Marketing & Social Media
Campbell Soup Company

When did you officially decide to follow Dunbar’s number?
I started this about 3 years ago. I realized that if Facebook was about friends and about connecting with people who matter the most, it made no sense to accept every request. As Facebook changed the algorithm for what shows up in your feed, this became a great validation of the concept. My feed, including the sponsored stuff, was cleaner and more useful and interesting.

Had you already accumulated a number of Facebook friends past the number, requiring you to downsize? If so, how did you go about that process?
From time to time I exceed 150, then I make cuts. My formula is simple: if we haven’t talked, texted, instant messaged, exchanged a tweet, interacted on Facebook, etc. in 30 days, we’re clearly not close enough. So it’s simple, if we don’t connect in some way, shape, or form over 30 days, I drop people.

On Twitter, you follow over 1,500 people—does Dunbar’s number not apply there?
For awhile I kept my Twitter list to 400. Anything more and it was tough to keep up. That’s when Twitter first started. Today, I find following more people to be a good thing. For starters, I learned I don’t need to read everything. Additionally, the majority of people share the same stuff. How many people retweet Mashable? I’m actually more likely not to miss something by following more people. I don’t think Dunbar’s number applies to Twitter, because by design Twitter is about connecting with people you don’t know. Though, I imagine, if you could run an analysis on the people you engage with the most on Twitter, it’d be less than 150.

How many people would you estimate you’ve hidden from the news feed, as opposed to unfriending? With a small friend list, I would assume you’d keep people you want to see in the feed.
I’ve only hidden / unsubscribed from one person. He’s a hardcore Republican. I’m not. His status updates during the political season junked up my feed.

The Future of Social Media

Social media serves an interesting purpose. On one hand, it offers the ability to stay in close proximity with your core social group, ultimately enhancing your relationships with these people. However, social media also offers an opportunity to expand your relationships and forge new relationships with people you’ve never met. Facebook seems to keep current social circles close, while Twitter tilts towards connecting with new people.

It will be interesting to see what unfolds between the two popular platforms; however, a new platform could emerge. Google+ definitely makes an attempt with their well built Circles, but it’s stuck somewhere in between.

Time will tell.

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