Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Robin Dunbar and the limits to social networking – a fundamental question of purpose and definition

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on June 10, 2010

Online social networking and online social networkers agree and disagree on the same range of issues as you would find if you were to poll humanity in general, and for a very good reason – such a large percentage of humanity is in one way or other involved in global online social networking. Over 500 million people have at least joined Facebook. The Facebook community may be the largest single web site-based online network, at least for profile-based online social networking but there are many, many thousands of these sites, and if you take a wider perspective as far as tool selection is concerned, these social networking sites only account for a fraction and perhaps a small fraction of online social networking activity per se. That is definitely true if you include email, instant messaging, Tweeting and other tools that we have come to take for granted as windows into online connecting and communications.

The one issue of real contention that I can think of that looks to be relatively unique to online social networking per se and that is commonly raised, is the topic of this posting – what exactly is social networking in the online context? This is more commonly expressed as a question of networking strategy and of how many people we as individuals should try and connect with directly in our personal online social networks – and of how we would select people we would agree to directly connect with.

I have already discussed at least one portion of this set of issues in an earlier posting: Social Network Taxonomy and Social Networking Strategy, where I outlined some of the major strategy types that individual networkers can and do follow. I wrote there of active and passive networkers and others as approaches to growing networks by the numbers, and I wrote of hub networkers, boundary networkers and others for when you examine how networking strategy maps onto and connects within and between communities. Mostly, I have referred back to this posting in subsequent blog entries to cite that second, community-centered view of networking strategy, but today I want to pick up on the first of these taxonomic approaches and the distinctions in level of networking activity deemed acceptable to individuals. In this, the second list with its hub networkers, boundary networkers and boundaryless networkers can all be considered to be active networkers – people open to connecting directly and with many individuals, including those they do not already know by other means.

These potential networking contacts do in fact play a crucial role in creating pathways connecting together what would otherwise be completely separate social networks, making it possible to reach most anyone who is willing to connect with at least a few others online. These networkers in effect make the global online social network at least potentially a single connectable network. But that set of distinctions leaves out many and perhaps over half of all of the people who do at least some online social networking but who focus on limiting their connections selectively – most passive networkers, selective networkers and inactive networkers. And the distinctions between these networker types and each other, and the distinction between them and active networkers rest on some fundamental distinctions that can be made as to what social networking and social interaction mean per se. And that is where Robin Dunbar comes into this discussion, and a concept he developed that is known as Dunbar’s number.

Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar is an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, and primatologist who is best known for his work studying the cognitive limits as to how many individuals any given individual person can maintain ongoing stable relationships with, and his conclusion is generally found to be approximately 150 as an outer limit. Dunbar argues that this number represents a fundamental limitation imposed by the size and wiring complexity and capabilities of our neocortex, and that as such this is a fixed biological limit. In this, distinctions between the various social networking strategies found online hinge in significant measure as to precisely what the term “stable relationship” means.

In an online context and with the potential for us to store and access content including relationship data online and in the cloud this concept divides into at least three separate issues:

1. How complex and comprehensive, and continuously active does a relationship have to be to be stably meaningful?
2. Can we simultaneously hold several perhaps competing definitions and levels of stability in relationship in our minds and in our networks that would work for us in organizing and characterizing our relationships? Here, what constitutes a stable relationship might be quite contextual with different thresholds of detail and contact needed to meet a meaningful (to us) threshold to qualify as being stable.
3. How much of the underlying data and context do we have to hold in our minds and in our neocortex and other/connected brain structures and how much can we meaningfully leave in the cloud – assuming there, that we can readily access this information and bring it to our active, conscious awareness when and as needed?

I would argue that the limitation proposed and argued for by Robin Dunbar is a valid approach to networking and that this informs the underlying assumptions going into a great many people as they make their online networking decisions. But a great many people reach equally valid conclusions as to how to network, and with whom and in what numbers by coming to different conclusions as to the above three questions, and particularly for questions two and three.

I state as a disclaimer that when I cite my own case in social networking that any conclusions I might reach are simply anecdotal but I just checked my LinkedIn connections listings and as of today it shows as including 3678 direct connections. This is a fraction over 24 times the Dunbar number so by his criteria I am not stably related to most of these people and I agree with that – when my social network is analyzed strictly by Dunbar’s criteria. And that is true when my social network is limited to just my LinkedIn network and I in fact actively connect with a great many people outside of that group too.

• I do in fact network with people at the level of relationship richness that Dunbar has in mind when he speaks and writes of stable relationships.
• I also connect stably with people on an ongoing basis who I hold different levels of relationship with and yes that is largely context dependant.
• And for many of these people – most of them, I store the content of these relationships in the cloud, or rather I tap into the networking content they offer, and update in maintaining continuity and in reaching out and actively connecting with them.
• I add that as an active networker, who would qualify more as a boundaryless networker for the number of communities I connect into, I have a fairly modest networking reach. Just considering LinkedIn direct connections, there are many people who have twenty and more times as many direct connections there as I do.

And for me, and I suspect for many if not most active networkers, this all comes down to networking strategy and that is shaped by the business rules encoded into our online social networking sites and tools and how they do and do not work. When I first started using LinkedIn, I quickly realized I could not see the names of people I found in my site searches when for example looking for people who work in particular businesses of interest to me – unless I was at least a third level connection to them. So I did my online research and I found some open networkers who connected very widely, and I added a few of them to my direct connections lists. That had the effect of tremendously expanding the reach I had for doing my business intelligence gathering where I could see those names. This does not mean I wanted to try and directly connect with all of the people I was able to see the profiles to, but it does mean I was able to utilize a site like LinkedIn as a much more powerful and effective tool for my work. I could use it to assemble a much richer and more coherent picture as I did my business research and due diligence. And I began to reach out and connect, and with a developing strategy in mind, with a stratified and contextual set of networking relationship definitions that I used to help me in developing my view of the overall LinkedIn community as a tool of value to me. I shaped my online social networking approach to mesh with the strengths and limitations of the LinkedIn and other business models as encoded in their web site and tool functionalities.

With one level or other of conscious planning and execution, that is what we all do in our social networking. We start with some basic pre-internet conceptions as to what social networking and social relationships are and we develop and perhaps expand them as we move into the online social context.

And this brings me back to Robin Dunbar and his number again. What the Dunbar number represents is a fundamental limitation to the pre- and non-internet social network, and to forming the pre-internet assumptions and conceptions of social networking that we bring to the internet as we begin going online. The differences that develop in our networking and in our conception of the stable relationship, in perhaps many contextual forms come from where we go from that point on as we develop our own view of the internet, and of its capabilities for social networking as shaped by our own goals and priorities, and our approaches to the tools we use and their restrictions and capabilities.

And I finish this with a final generational difference thought. I was born pre-internet and I began using computers when they were all stand-alone mainframe behemoths – huge in size and tiny in computational power and even by the standards of the first primitive desktop computers. I came to the internet when it was more promise and potential than reality and I had a very firmly pre-developed conception of what social networking and social relationships are and can be. Each subsequent generation, born after the advent of the electronic computer and the birth of the internet spends its earliest, formative years in a completely different context where the basic assumptions that would go into answering the three numbered questions above may be very different than the ones I started with. This does not change the fundamental structure, scale or limitations of our brains but it may and probably will shape how we interpret a parameter like the Dunbar number and the significance we place in it. And even there, there is at least some evidence that our experience can and does affect the wiring and connectivity levels and richness in our brains so we may even be causing at least some changes there. I cite evidence coming out of functional MRI studies with this.

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  1. […] and issues related to business and social networking. In that regard, some of my postings (e.g. Robin Dunbar and the limits to social networking – a fundamental question of purpose and definitio… as a recent example) seem to have caught above average levels of interest. Thank […]


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