Twitter vs. the Dunbar Number, and the Rise of Weak Ties

There’s a great post in The Economist about Social Networks that has a nice little review of the Dunbar Number. The Dunbar Number is a number that social network theorists have been tossing around for a long time that refers to the maximum number of people that an individual can maintain (meaning: interact with at a regular enough interval to maintain a stable relationship) at a given time in his or her social network.  It is commonly believed to around 150. It appears over and over again in social network research.

primateneocortex_dunbarThe key phrase in this article (for me, at least) comes towards the end as a conclusion about what digital social networks (for this article, Facebook and especially Twitter) are enabling in terms of personal social network management:

“What mainly goes up, therefore, is not the core network but the number of casual contacts that people track more passively.”

Well that’s the whole point of Twitter isn’t it? As opposed to Facebook where a mutual acceptance of the relationship must occur before a user is allowed to track actions of another, Twitter puts all of your messages into the public cloud where it can be tracked, either actively or passively, by any user who chooses to do so.

I suspect it is the very rare Twitter user indeed who creates an account and only follows known acquaintances, and sticks to that over the life of their Twitter usage. More often than not I expect that users start with people they already know, who are already on Twitter, then branch into thought leaders from their industry or hobbies, local sources of information, and all of a sudden they’re following a fair number of Twitterers who they didn’t know personally before creating their account. Additionally, they may have found an audience for the information they are contributing through Twitter and attracted followers of their own – perhaps encountering new users to follow because those users actually found them first.

A Couple of Personal Thoughts (Untested Anecdotal Theories) About the Dunbar Number

Untested Anecdotal Theory #1:
There’s a spectrum of ‘stable’ relationships. There are stable relationships of daily interaction regarding personal and intimate topics. There are stable relationships of regular interaction, and there are stable relationships of irregular (potentially very irregular) interactions. The more stable the basis of a relationship is with another person, the less regularly you need to ‘groom‘ that relationship. I have friends who I’ve known for a long time, with whom I speak or interact very irregularly, but when we do talk or interact – whether it’s been months, or even years since our last conversation – it’s like we’ve been in touch the whole time. I thnk that new social media helps maintain these less regular, more stable relationships over long periods of time. Basically, if a relationship’s base is strong or deep enough, then it degrades slowly enough so that even extremely irregular contact, or maybe even just the knowledge that the contact could be made, is enough to counter the degradation.

Untested Anecdotal Theory #2:
Because technology and new social media helps maintain less regular relationships as stable, if we were to examine the Dunbar Number over longer time periods, allowing for the existence of stable relationships maintained through (or despite) very irregular contact, then we might find an increase (though maybe slight) in Dunbar Numbers.

Untested Anecdotal Theory #3:
The passive tracking that is referred to in passing in the article from The Economist is the lede that’s been buried. What we are seeing is the rise of weak ties in our social networks. It is unlikely that there is much we can do to increase the number of strong ties we can manage because the limiting element there isn’t something that can be solved through efficiency of interaction – creating new strong ties and maintaining them requires time and thoughtful participation. Weak ties are what connect your group of densely interconnected strong ties into the densely connected hubs of strong ties of others. Granovetter’s research also famously showed that weak ties are unbelievably valuable – in some cases, moreso than strong ties – when it comes to disseminating (or gathering) information.

from bokardo.com

from bokardo.com

So, the fact that new social technology is allowing us to grow the ranks of our weak ties and passively tracked relationships should not be glossed over as an aside, or also-ran, or less than exciting and amazing development… It should be embossed, stuffed, mounted, lacquered, bronzed, and put up on a pedestal for all to admire in perpetuity. Word.

Go get yourself some weak ties. Go harness them weak ties. Feel the power. Feel the love.

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