The misinterpretations and exaggerations of this “number” are worth any marketer’s attention. First, it is not a cap on any kind of social media marketing -- it is not a limitation to social media interaction or engagement in any way. And second, if every one of us does, in fact, have 150 close friends in us that’s a pretty impressive number.
Here’s some background for those unfamiliar with Dunbar’s Number. Dunbar’s Number first appeared on the scene in 2004… it was put forth by Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University College of London. Based on his studies of primates, brain size and other social cues, he hypothesized that the largest sustainable social network was 147 people. Dunbar’s Number was a big part of Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point.
Its most recent appearance comes from a paper published a few weeks ago by the Cornell University Physics Department. That’s right, physics. Not marketing and not engineering. It studied six months of Twitter conversations involving 1.7 million individuals. “We find that users can entertain a maximum of 100-200 stable relationships in support for Dunbar's prediction,” says the Cornell group. “The ‘economy of attention’ is limited in the online world by cognitive and biological constraints as predicted by Dunbar's theory. Inspired by this empirical evidence we propose a simple dynamical mechanism, based on finite priority queuing and time resources, that reproduces the observed social behavior.”
Dang. Are you telling me I’m wasting 1,100 or so people I’ve connected with on Facebook? What about my 900-plus connections on LinkedIn? Are they suggesting that all peer-to-peer influence is limited to 150 people?
No, they're not. Dunbar’s Number is great debate fodder -- a lot of fun over dinner and drinks. But let’s be clear about what it is and what it isn’t. It is an academic theory, and a scientific study. It is therefore somewhat limited in the real world. It doesn’t account for that social media event, such as Charlie Sheen’s moment in the cybersun and it doesn’t account for “super users.” As brands come to social media more for event-oriented marketing, and promotions that encourage short-term engagement, they are reaching an audience. A huge, engaged audience. The amount of friends each individual can influence and attract is secondary to that total audience. Dunbar is relegated to an anthropological study, not a marketing limitation.
Let’s play the other side of that card. Let’s accept Dunbar as cash money. Let’s accept that the best any member of a social media network can influence, or even stay in touch with, is 147 people. You would also, then, have to accept that every member of a social media network has the potential to add 147 impressions to any media buy. Does Dunbar’s Number mean social media impressions are worth 147 times their stated value?
As I said, great debate fodder. Here’s what I know. Social media is being measured in exponential terms. I don’t really care if the right number is 14, 147, or 14,700. The right approach is exponential. Social media network members interact all over the media world, and very often the social network is the hub of their activity. Dunbar’s Number, right or wrong, centers the debate on how big the social network can be.
Most likely the right number changes with each person and with each reason for social interactions. I like the fact that Dunbar has us all talking numbers. Let’s not forget however, that there are people in those numbers -- a lot of people!