When I wrote about Dunbar's Number a few years ago I was approaching it from the perspective of someone who was firmly ensconced in the social world.
I argued that, while Dunbar's Number was repeatedly touted as evidence that we should focus on the quality of connections not quantity, our "friendships" on social networks did not reflect the type that Dunbar was talking about.
As such, his number did not directly relate to social networks.
More recently, however, I wrote:
”It's ironic that the more we are supposedly connected the more distant we become. Perhaps we are widening the circles of acquaintanceship too far.”
I didn't expand on this at the time, it was a bit of a throwaway comment, however I thought I needed to come back to it.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the circles of acquaintanceship are the social layers within which the degree of our relationships decreases with distance.
The first circle only five people: your spouse and other closest family member and, perhaps, your best friend or two. They form your inner circle, those who you know most about.
The next circle contains fifteen people: maybe some of your wider family and more friends but who aren’t in your immediate circle of trust.
Next come circles of 50 and 150 with the intimacy of the relationships reducing as the circles expand.
And so on, as I wrote before:
”This logic extends beyond the limits of Dunbar’s number and it has been suggested that circles of acquaintanceship continue to 500, 1500 and beyond. Coincidentally, 1500 is apparently the number of faces we can easily recognise.”
But Dunbar’s Number was originally designed to apply to communities, villages, tribes. The online environment, however, is radically different hence the argument that Dunbar’s Number doesn’t apply here because the relationships we have are usually much more distant those offline.
Facebook limits users to 5000 friends and arguments exist over whether this is just an arbitrary number.
I’ve remarked in the past that Facebook, more than any other social media property, is firmly based in network science so maybe it’s no coincidence that 5000 would be the next circle of acquaintanceship after 1500.
So, whether you believe that it was a deliberate figure or necessitated by scaling issues, it was an interesting decision. One much to the annoyance of some popular folks who easily hit that limit, necessitating that Facebook had to add unilateral following alongside reciprocal friending.
For once, here, I find myself commending Facebook on a decision.
Perhaps the problems with social networks are due to playing the numbers game: more friends, more likes, more everything. Because of this we lose focus, lose the connections with others amongst the flow of data.
Dunbar may not apply directly but we should be taking the same approach with how many connections we have.
We are trying to cast the net too wide.