I’m a big fan of social media in all it’s forms; they’re great tools to help keep you in touch and connected to a wide circle of friends, colleagues, contacts and acquaintances.

Online or offline there's a limit to true relationship numbers

But apparently there’s a limit to how many people we, as humans, can physically maintain valuable inter-personal relationships with. At the risk of getting all anthropological with you, it is actually a key factor in our effectiveness to communicate and being aware of our limitations should help in our approach to all forms of networking including social media.

The science behind this is a calculation known as Dunbar’s number. It’s the limit to the number of people who we can keep regular social relationships with. So what’s the magic number?

Professor Robin Dunbar http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar’s_number has theorized that the number of inter-personal relationships we can maintain falls between 100 and 230. Quite a range but the quantity of quality relationships we can maintain is predominantly governed by the size of our neocortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for managing communication.

The introduction of social networking tools has been suggested as a method of growing an individuals Dunbar number however there is a flaw in this argument. Whilst they may increase our ability to communicate with an ever wider audience they don’t provide the time or platforms to build meaningful relationships.

True social relationships require a little more than a cursory tweet or facebook post. If you analyse your most regular interractions on these sites you’ll typically find the same “friendly faces” responding. Although an exchange on Twitter does not count as a true stable social relationship to qualify for a Dunbar point it is a start.

Getting involved in Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook can enable us to build a better understanding of how we are developing new tools to communicate, perhaps enabling more of us to realize our Dunbar limit. But for those of us looking at social media for a return on investment for our business will we simply be acquiring followers or making truly effective connections? Perhaps we should simply accept that we all have our limits and if that’s 100 or 200 so be it. The true power of the social media phenomenon is not how many individuals we have following, connecting or friending us, it’s the collective interactivity of multiple networks.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” makes frequent references to how ideas and products catch on by this use of social group dynamics and the manner in which information transmits throughout a group. Just look at the way in which Facebook users have turned their profile pictures to cartoons. The core message began in November in Greece, and has been translated and tweaked to become a global trend – it taps into a desire to show solidarity against the abuse of children and the fun element of associating yourself with a favourite cartoon. A win win in social media trend terms but all generated by a multitude of networks with key drivers within “spreading the word”.

As a marketer my challenge is to find a voice and a message for myself and clients that interacts with chosen networks adding real value. When we then have a key message to relay we have a far greater chance of success and opportunity for the message to travel beyond these known networks.

So rather than being disheartened with the news that we have limitations when it comes to the number of stable relationships we can form; we should embrace this truth and seek quality in our groups.   Why would we want to spend valuable time building relationships with people who are just not likely to “tune in” to our message, get our humour or recommend our services?

David Laud

i2i business solutions llp

Making Connections – There’s a Limit So Make Them Count
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