Can we really have more than 200 friends? Are we really missing out if we don’t have a large social media following? Looking at Dunbar’s number for answers reveals that for most people our primary connections are ones we have a historically relevant relationship with. For most of us that happens within the realm of 100-250. You don’t have to see them regularly for it to be meaningful. Dunbar goes on to suggest that these are people who you at least try to make an effort to connect with at least once a year. Historically these could be people on your holiday card list as in the case of Victorian era Christmas card exchanges. Social Media would have us believe a quick tweet or holiday greeting online is a good modern trade off for a visit to the post office. Even Dunbar acknowledges the inherent drive to build large groups for survival, because historically our lose and distant connections could make available certain resources that weren’t available in our immediate community.
200 and beyond
Beyond your core circle of 15 close friends, 50 good friends, and 150 meaningful (but casual) connections, we have 500-1500 additional circles of acquaintances. People we generally can recognize if we take a few minutes to remember what ties us together. What that means is if you have 200 or more friendships online, you are probably using your account for professional reasons or those connections have a shared cultural understanding with you that doesn’t require a great deal of intimacy or intensity.
What is interesting and a pause for concern is that once you go beyond 100-250 your connections lose cohesion. Our brains simply can’t handle it. This ability is primarily determined by the number of siblings or playmates you had while growing up. The larger your group, the less likely you can get things done. On the bright side smaller groups of 15 individuals working closely together and operating within the greater whole has proven more effective for their ability to stay on mission and accomplish their tasks with greater efficiency. While your brain size indicates your capacity for relationships and the number of siblings or playmates you had while your brain was developing is important, it is the intensity of the relationships of those 15 individuals that matters. Which is why work associates who are more than associates, meaning they work and play well together, often are better connected at work AND in their personal lives than those who work in larger loosely connected groups.
A Chain of Friends
Before you resist the idea of smaller is better, consider the ripple effect of those relationships. Each of your 15 friends who focuses on the quality of their own 15 friends, have not only their 15 friends are also each connected to an additional 150 relationships. You don’t have to know each and everyone of them to understand the impact and influence those ripples can generate. Remember Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees? It is based on the Six Degrees of Separation. An idea that any two people in the world are connected by one personal connection and five acquaintances. A fun way to illustrate that is to find the Bacon Number, where any actor or celebrity is only separated by six degrees from Kevin Bacon. When we try to apply this concept in our lives the techniques used so far find this number to either be less than six (3-4) or grossly larger (around 60-100). Facebook’s data team released two papers in November 2011 from their research showing the average connections were 4.74 degrees apart. In 2016 they updated their report that while the number of Facebook users increased the degree of connection slightly dropped. On the other hand LinkedIn is designed around the concept of those first 3 degrees being important to you.
Here is a recap of the experience from Kevin Bacon’s point of view and how it helped him to imagine the possibilities in making a difference in the world.
Need more Kevin Bacon? Check out his new podcast on Spotify:
Social media platforms have convinced us that online relationships are a welcoming place and that the more friends we are connected to, the better off we are. Sure you could have 5,000 friends but have you ever asked yourself what the point of that is? According to Dunbar we can only sustain our online relationships if we are seeing them in person. If don’t make regular contact in person, over time, those relationships decay and eventually work their way outside of your tribe of 150.
Every day we make decisions on how we invest our time in social interactions. Social media can be a great tool if used for that purpose. And we know that Extroverts tend to have looser and larger circles of connections while Introverts prefer smaller and more intimate circles. Thankfully the ability to focus on deeper and more meaningful connections isn’t defined at birth. Being an extrovert or introvert doesn’t predetermine our ability to be social. While it is romantic to think our BFFs will always be our BFFs the truth is our friends today might not be our friends tomorrow. And that is okay. People migrate in and out of these circles as our life experiences change. Each day presents a choice that defines the quality and intensity of our friendships. As we decide to make new friends and pay attention to those friendships we develop the capacity to have more connections.
Good news! We can wake up tomorrow and engage with awareness, wisely using our time with each other knowing that we are connected to each other in ways we don’t even understand. Imagine if each intentionally used social media platforms each month to reach out to 6 people we haven’t spoken to in awhile. Just to talk and catch up. Imagine how that could humanize and reconnect us in unseen ways. Thinking about someone? See if the feeling is mutual.
Reach out and say Hello to an old friend or acquaintance today.