“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” That’s they old adage about networking. And with social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, it’s never been easier to connect. In just a few clicks we can share pictures, ideas, and gossip with folks from all kinds of backgrounds anywhere in the world.
But has this actually increased our ability to connect? An anthropologist in the ‘90s looked at primate brains and correlated them with the size of their social groups. He found that the larger the neocortex, the bigger the network of individual primates. By extrapolating the data and applying it to humans, he found that people can support 150 relationships. This limit is now known as “Dunbar’s Number,” named after the researcher. The number has been validated empirically, looking at primitive societies, military company size, and Christmas card lists. It’s also been derived as a differential equation:
Source: Royal Society
It turns out that Dunbar’s Number is part of a geometric series, and it’s fairly stable. Most people tend to have a core group of 3-5 “family,” a larger group of 20-40 “friends,” and an extended group of 100-200 acquaintances. This holds for primitive and modern societies, and it seems to apply to social networks. The more Facebook friends we try to maintain, the shallower our relationships tend to become. There’s only so much time in the day, only so many pictures that we can scan, and only so much energy we can devote to keeping up. While we may have a larger digital network, most of those relationships are dormant. I’m connected on LinkedIn with dozens of folks that I worked with in the ‘80s, but we only touch base once every couple years or so.
We only have so much social capital to spread around. Companies organize themselves around this limit. The makers of Gore-Tex fabric built their campus so that each building has only 150 workers. By trial and error, they found that if more than 150 employees work together, social problems arise.
Social networks are a great way to keep up with our connections. But they won’t replace friendship. They just organize and channel that energy in different ways.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”