Why socializing doesn’t scale

Online social networking platforms allow people to develop social networks with ties to thousands, and in some cases millions, of others. When a personal network grow beyond a certain size the relationships seem to lose their intimacy and the sense of community is suffering.

The social brain

The reason for this may be that there is a limit to how many social relationships the human brain is capable of processing and synthesizing information on, referred to as The social brain hypothesis. Research has found that all humans, independent of culture, have a hierarchy of social groups with fixed sizes that are likely to have been the same since prehistoric times (source: Discrete hierarchical organization of social group sizes).

Social group sizes

The support clique is made up of the tree to five people closest to us we, who we would seek personal advice or help from in times of serious distress.

Beyond the support clique is the sympathy group of twelve to twenty people we have special ties to and keep in touch with regularly.

The next level are bands of thirty to fifty individuals, the same size as overnight hunting and gathering groups. These bands change in composition but are all pulled from the same larger group.

The clan is a larger group of about 150 individuals. This is also called Dunbar’s number, after the scientist who found that this is the maximum number of people with whom a stable personal relationships can be maintained. This is the same size as traditional small societies.

There has also been found evidence for at least two larger groups, a megaband of about 500 people and the tribe of about 1000-2000 individuals.

What are the consequences for online social network platforms?

So what are the consequences of these findings for online social networking platforms? How can they be redesigned to better support traditional social group sizes?


13 Comments »

  1. Thanks for posting this insight Viil. The sheer number of people some Twitaholics are following makes me wonder what processing capability their brain is made up of ;-). With sometimes in excess of 10,000 or even more people they follow, they sure do have an extended tribe – or perhaps even a bigger clan, band etc cascading downwards to a big family. You may also want to connect to @pat_zwitschert who’s researching the pyschological angle to 2.0

    Comment by Paul Hassels Mönning — February 4, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

  2. Thank you for your comments Paul. I think you are right that today’s technology allows larger social groups to exist. Maybe because the technology can be used to aid some of the relationship processing our brain has limited capabilities for, like remembering who people are and in which context we know them.

    The Twitter accounts with 10,000 or more followers seem to me to be more for broadcasting than for networking, but I suspect that those who have twitter accounts with a large amount of followers still maintain smaller social groups within this mass whom they have more interaction with.

    I will be following @pat_zwitschert 🙂

    Comment by Viil Lid — February 5, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  3. I was going to comment that maybe we use social network technology to compensate for natural limitations in how many people we can actively associate with. Then I read the previous comment about using technology “to aid some of the relationship processing.” That’s just what I was thinking, but is better stated 🙂

    Now that makes me then wonder if too much computer aid will have a deleterious effect – like how I have such a hard time remembering phone numbers since my phone does that for me. Twice in the last week, I was able to recall someone’s twitter ID but not their real name!

    Might these age-old maxims for memory and association actually change as a result of technology?

    Related article: Is Google Making Us Stupid? – The Atlantic (July/August 2008)
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

    Comment by tkell — February 6, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  4. I think this is a great question:

    “Might these age-old maxims for memory and association actually change as a result of technology?”

    Robin Dunbar, the originator of Dunbar’s number, is currently doing research on Facebook and MySpace data to see if his clan number of approximately 150 holds in technology mediated social networks as well. He claims that preliminary findings supports this. But we’ve only been using technology to support social networking for a few years, and these changes may take longer time.

    So, will these group numbers grow as using technology becomes an integral part of maintaining social relationships, or will we just get larger groups added to the small ones we already have?

    Comment by Viil Lid — February 6, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

  5. Have you made your social group size image available under Creative Commons or is it not OK to distribute or use? Would love to include in a presentation. Like your thinking by the way:-)

    Comment by Aimar — February 7, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  6. Feel free to use the image as long as you give me credit 🙂

    Comment by Viil Lid — February 7, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  7. Viil, great meeting you last night at the ABCs of Networking mixer. I read about Dunbar’s number in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books…Blink I believe…and have to say the social experience gets diluted when you have a ton of people in your clan/tribe/etc. I find this most to be the case with Twitter. It’s difficult to follow the “conversations” although the “lists” function makes it a bit easier. I guess time and more research will tell how this all plays out.

    Comment by Nathan — May 14, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  8. […] Remember Dunbar’s number and the 90-9-1 rule? The social web might be a pluralistic revolution, but it is the passionate and remarkable few who actually rewires the web as they see fit. As spectators, we can not possibly take interest in everyone, so we choose carefully which individuals to include on our non-scalable circles. […]

    Pingback by The art of being relevant #PRofWorld — Doktor Spinn — May 28, 2010 @ 4:33 am

  9. Problem is…. this research is published in 2005.

    = old in internet age

    I do believe technology like the iphone combined with the simplicity of social media like twitter allows you to keep track of and build strong relations to many more people than you could back in the heady days of 2005.

    I think the web is moving too fast for solid academic research. By the time one has gotten to the bottom of a hypothesis, all the data and surrounding factors have changed. Twice!

    Comment by Kåre Garnes — June 2, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

  10. What this doesn’t seem to take into account is the shifting of individuals from one group to another. Members of your clan may move (at least momentarily) to your band, or even “sympathy group”, because they are blood relations, or share a common background; and find themselves called upon. Further, it makes sense for a person to maintain their more distant relationships to increase the potential pool of individuals that can come to their aid, in times of trouble.

    The expansion of social network awareness seems to me to be just that; an expansion. Social media enables individuals to expand their pool of social resources cheaply and efficiently. I see social media as a bonus, rather than an imperfect replacement.

    Comment by Mr. Pony — June 13, 2010 @ 12:26 am

  11. Thanks for posting this insight Viil. The sheer number of people some Twitaholics are following makes me wonder what processing capability their brain is made up of . With sometimes in excess of 10,000 or even more people they follow, they sure do have an extended tribe – or perhaps even a bigger clan, band etc cascading downwards to a big family. You may also want to connect to @pat_zwitschert who’s researching the pyschological angle to 2.0
    +1

    Comment by Rosa — November 10, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

  12. […] each of these networks, Vil Liid once again shows us a powerful info graphic that I’ve been using on several of the seminars I’ve […]

    Pingback by Psychology: How To Scale Social Media Marketing — April 14, 2012 @ 3:19 am

  13. The military has been the best example as to how this is done in its hierarchical array of squads, platoons, companies, battalions, regiments, and divisions. Private companies, corporations, government agencies, clubs, and so on have all developed comparable (if less formal and standardized) systems when the number of members or employees exceeds the number that can be accommodated in an effective group. Not all larger social structures require the cohesion that may be found in the small group. Consider the neighborhood, the country club , or the megachurch , which are basically territorial organizations who support large social purposes. Any such large organizations may need only islands of cohesive leadership.

    Comment by Efren P. Moran — January 23, 2013 @ 8:57 am

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