Your Friends List & Dunbar’s Number
Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people (150) with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.
- You probably have too many “friends” on social media.
- Social Media should be a tool and not a Rolodex of everyone you’ve ever met.
- Rip the band-aid off of toxic relationships.
- Don’t miss the Forest for the Trees.
- “The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks” – Bloomberg
- “Robin Dunbar: we can only ever have 150 friends at most…” – The Guardian
Who’s A Friend?
Let’s face it, if you wouldn’t take their phone call or return a text, you’re not their friend. Nonetheless, the idea of doing any sort of selective curation on your social networks sounds elitists. It’s a touchy subject because it is inherently personal. However, if the idea is to promote and foster meaningful and healthy relationships, shouldn’t we actively keep up our list of personal relationships? Even if only to spur us to reach out to those we have not talked to in some time.
So, going back to Dunbar’s number, do you honestly believe you can maintain greater than 150 current, relevant, and meaningful relationships at a time? Dunbar’s number has fascinated me for a long time now; ever since I heard about it a while ago in some long forgotten podcast. To really test this theory, I applied the theory to my own social media channels in leading up to this post. To be clear, I don’t count muting, blocking, and un-following as signs of curating connections. You have to do the hard work and make the tough calls. You can always reconnect with people, if they will have you.
Social Media companies have become really good at manipulating our attention spans and interests. Like cults, the first thing they do is get you to believe that all your friends are in this “thing” and you will be left out if you are not too. If Social Media is a tool for strengthening existing relationships why does it seem to operate more like a club. I think it’s particularly interesting when you look at some of the data on how it adversely affects teenagers as covered in the TED Talk, “Manipulation.” Or look at how social media was used to spread Fake News and potentially impact elections. Social Networks have made it easier to send someone a connection request than to actually work at forming a real connection.
Ask yourself, are you really just being a voyeur by keeping them as a friend? If you don’t get along with someone, are you just trying to be the bigger person by keeping them as a connection and hoping they delete you first. Also, I have found that everyone has their preferred social platform of choice. So, you don’t need to be connected to that everyone on every platform. I noticed a few contacts of mine had almost 5,000 people in their friends lists. That’s celebrity status. On the other hand others have as few as 30 connections. Which count is more meaningful and whose getting more out of these platforms? I am left asking some key questions about how to define real connections.
- Do I engage with them and do they engage with me?
- Have I seen them or tried to in the last year?
- Are they part of an affinity group that we both belong to?
Moreover, I wanted to clean up my list of contacts because I am tired of letting the algorithms determine for me what is important to see first. I only allow about 30-60 minutes of time to be active on Social Media, so shouldn’t I see what matters most based on real meaningful interactions. I understand the platforms need to make money off of these relationships by mining the data, but shouldn’t that data at least be current and accurate. Shouldn’t they have to work at it? Lastly, I’ve also always liked the element of surprise. So, frequently seeing what everyone you ever met us up to could make real interactions less engaging.
The first thing I did was to close all the old social media accounts that I rarely use. Then I tackled platforms where I was only barely over Dunbar’s number; Twitter and Instagram. I used some simple criteria to do a first pass. On LinkedIn, I asked myself could I pick up the phone and ask the same favor versus sending an InMail? On Facebook, your contact list is sorted by engagement. So I started at the bottom and worked my way up. It gets easier to remove a connection once you get through the first pass. Eventually, you become kind of savage at it. And If anyone removes me, I get it, I can be intense a lot of the time.
I also stopped liking Pages entirely and cleaned up all the groups I have joined. Ask yourself, does a brand really need you to like their page for them to grow? Do you need to like and follow companies to get meaning from their products and/or services?
- No Corporate Connections
- No Connections who are not active themselves. At least in the past year.
- No Connections I don’t personally know or have not met.
For a second pass I applied the following criteria:
- People with thousands of contacts won’t even notice you’re gone. If they do, they’ll add you back.
- Don’t keep toxic people. Especially those who spread Racist, Sexist, and misleading information.
- Acquaintances you have not seen, spoken to, or seen a post from in over a year.
- Friends of friends of friends.
- That one relative…
- Duplicate Profiles, those friends who forgot their passwords and created another profile.
Essentially, Dunbar’s number is probably not fixed at 150 and is in fact a relative figure to each person. I am sure you could argue that Extroverts could balance a higher number than Introverts. Then there are those who really just use social media as a Rolodex and don’t care about actual engagement. You also have to consider that public figures and business people need to maintain a high number of connections in order to grow their audience and digging up those important contacts for deals. I will work towards that magic number of 150 or less across all platforms as best as I can, but I won’t make it an absolute must. In the end, it has just been more important for me to experiment and challenge myself to review all the likes, adds, and follows. It’s about trying to live a carefully curated life. As for those relationships that are hard to deal with, as Chinua Achebe masterfully explained, Things Fall Apart.
The other perspective is that social media opens channels that in the real world a small circle would not allow. Also, spontaneous interactions can happen in ways that would not happen walking down the street. Such as the distant friend or relative that reaches out and connects with you over a cup of coffee to reconnect. If used correctly, the number of connections does not matter so long as the follow through on opportunities presented is reciprocal and meaningful. My final tally of social connections as of this posting is below.
- Twitter: 30
- Instagram: 94
- LinkedIn: 122
- Facebook: 180