Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is currently challenging British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory known as the Homo sapiens cortex ratio – the maximum number of people (approximately 150) with whom we maintain a genuine relationship. In short, someone, if our paths crossed, we would invite out for a libation.

Read On:
Last week I attended the 2009 National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. It is my industry’s premier networking event. Made me think about Dunbar’s numbers, which I first read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Being a student of networking, I pride myself on the Homo sapiens cortex ratio, but more importantly the quality of connections I have made over the years. After Chicago, I further subscribe to Dunbar’s theory.

How did Dunbar develop this number? He studied the 38 primate groups, collected data and then developed an equation to predict the human social group size. Dunbar then researched information about hunter-gathering tribes, religious groups, etc. His findings based on historical documentation, indicated communication and behavior attributed to direct connections remained under control at 150. Meltdown occurred above 150. As a result, as villages or colonies approached the magical number, they would split in two and form a new group.

Social media is currently challenging the number of people to whom we can stay connected, thanks to the Internet explosion. People continuously forge new relationships and boast about the number of people in their network – personal or business. Is it possible for an individual to have one to two thousand connections? Absolutely. What has morphed, thanks to the presence of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc., is the definition of a connection. According to Webster’s definition – a person connected to others esp. by marriage, kinship, or common interest: a casual or logical relationship as in social, professional, or commercial. Social media facilitates these connections like no other medium in the history of mankind. However, given the number of ephemeral connections I have made over the years attending the NRA, National and Regional conferences or via the Internet, my social media query follows:

· Without the face-to-face time needed to incubate a casual social, professional, or commercial relationship, how genuine are your “connections”?

· We live in an age of transparency thanks to the Internet. Are your connections’ profiles authentic?

· What is the average shelf life of a social media “connection”?

· If you bumped into your connection, would you feel at ease to sit down for a glass of wine? More importantly, thanks to social media clutter, would you even recognize your “connection”?

Remember, Robin Dunbar would challenge how many social relationships you realistically manage?


  1. Interesting question about 'shelf life' of a social media connection. I would say 'it depends' on how genuine each side may be in the communication. But isn't that true w/face to face also? How many phonies are out there who you've met face-to-face, yet to find they are not "real". (Air kisses). Do we really "know" anyone?

    A circle of friends is like a target. Few really close on the inside. Few more on the next level, and so on. Social Media has provided more depth to the outer circles.

    End note: All year I've maintained a nice relationship w/Tom all through electronic media. And that guy gets better all the time : ). But to your point, it would be great to meet more face to face.

  2. Excellent, Jimmy. I am going to look deeper into Dunbar. I agree with you that technology allows us to extend that number, but what is the number now? I dont think its much more than Dunbar posits, even with all the tools we have. I might recognize someone, or even remember their name, but do i have a relationship with them? Interesting concept. You make my head hurt.

  3. I challenges us to reflect on our concept of genuine. Personally, I think that that concept of genuine is not going to change. What will change is our ability to maintain relations that are outside that circle of genuine. In fact, maybe our "circle of friends" will actually become smaller and tighter while we allow our virtual network to expand. Hmm.....

  4. Maybe it's the alignment of the stars lately, but I'm getting to the point where a manifesto on living as a slave to technology is coming close to the tips of my fingers. Ironically, I'd be "writing it up" on my computer, or perhaps I'll just Twitter it out 160 characters at a time to 50,000 of my CPFs! "Delete"

  5. I had a hard time describing and linking to that post in 140 characters. But I managed. Now my 307 twitter followers have access to your blog.

    Thinking more about the content of your post, and questions posed, it's a daily issue of balance regarding the role social media plays in my life, and trying to forge and maintain meaningful relationships offline or through conventional means.

    Also, "Tweetups" take social media to the place where you can enjoy a drink with a "friend." They are organized gatherings of online people meeting offline for drinks and discussion--great networking tools that give you a multi-faceted relationship and ways of interacting.

    PS - When will I see @smartketing on Twitter?

  6. According to this recent Google study, the 150 number still stands...


  7. Simply fascinating. I have never heard of "Homo sapiens cortex ratio" and have yet to read the Tipping Point (although I did read Outliers).

    I've actually recently been reflecting on this. Just the idea of how social media has changed the way I/we communicate. I go to conferences and during the session I'm one of those people tweeting out useful tips from the session. I also tweet with others during sessions or RT them when they share notes.

    What does this mean? My level of engagement during the conference is on full speed. All of these miniconversations are topic starters. I've now met dozens if not hundreds of people online before I met them in person. And I already have a "connection" and a little "bond" with them before I even meet them in person. That thought is intriguing.

    Another random thought is the idea of online communication and the lack of non-verbal cues. I often find when I communicate with someone online I can get a much better "read" on them. I've accurately predicted someone's in-person personality many times because I've grown up and honed this "art."

    I can also communicate with attendees at conferences before the event by following the hash tag, or what have you. Anyway, it's an interesting thought to entertain and something I'd like to look into further. Thanks for sharing Jimmy.

  8. Interesting commentary of how the human mind works with respect to meaningful relationships and its capacity for quantity. Robin Dunbar's op-ed seemingly focuses on "friends" and "facebook friends" and admittedly they are not always the same thing.

    I think the majority of the article is focused on the social and anthropological effects of social media. I think the same arguments about the telephone, email, and teleconferencing were made when they were created yet the world moves on. It is not the responsibility of social media to build meaningful relationships. In fact Professor Dunbar also points out that social networking sites actually enable us neanderthals to actually rebuild communities and reinvigorate our networks. I echo his comment "Welcome to the electronic village."