Revisiting Dunbar’s Number (and the rule of 150 relationships)

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Today, it’s easier to find out what long-lost friends are doing when they post pictures of their trip to South America on Facebook than keeping up with a trusted buddy in the same town. The power of social networks to keep us close to people with whom we have weak ties can sometimes feel like a poor substitute for actually keeping touch with the people who matter most.

Yet a strange paradox happens when you think about the “go-to” people in your network for a given topic, subject, or interest. Even though you haven’t spoken to them for months or for years, they are the people who will write you back on social networks, call you when you call them, and offer the social glue that you need to support your network. Robin Dunbar – the anthropologist who invented “Dunbar’s Number,” or the observation that our networks tend to top out at about 150 people – believes that social networks have not fundamentally changed our ability to relate to each other in groups.

So should we revisit Dunbar’s Number? In my experience, the basic nature that Dunbar presents – that we are hardwired by biology to maintain a certain number of connections closely – seems true. Yet I’m not sure that Dunbar’s number, when applied to the various spheres in which we relate, has the same meaning in the age of the internet and in describing the ability that we have to form “loose ties” with people whom we meet on the internet. Consider this oddity – you may have met someone for the first time online who talks about some of the same things that you do, and later find that when you meet in real life that the connection you have feels like a “friend.”

The meaning of “friend” in a social media sense – clearly a range from an acquaintance to an actual close friend – is not exactly what Dunbar is getting at when he describes the size of social groups as defined by biology. Dunbar acknowledges that community size has grown over time, and I would argue that social networking has – for at least some of us – increased our Dunbar Number in ways we don’t yet understand.

When you think of the ability to reach out to people you know (either passably or reasonably well) on a given subject or topic and get a response, you realize that Dunbar’s Number may need rethinking. Here’s a proposal: that all of us support multiple sets of “Dunbar Number” communities around our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and our interest. The connections made easier by the Internet have exposed the weak ties between each node in our disparate networks – or between the connectors that tie together those nodes into a sort of edge social graph – and made it easier for us to find the communities that matter around the interests that we have. Even if we haven’t met the 150 people who share our affinity to Pez dispensers (and who would be in our Dunbar Number if they lived closer to us), we can meet and form the similar relationships that would be closer if we lived near them. Dunbar is right in that we can keep up only some close relationships at any one time, but technology has made it possible for us to simultaneously live in many communities at once.

We may only have 150 people in our immediate Dunbar sphere as we perceive it, and our ability to reach out and find the other kindred spirits (some of whom we may come to know well) causes our overall useful universe to grow. How much does it grow? For most people, not to the 10x point of the Dunbar Number. But many super connectors who I’ve met really are able to keep up relationships with a larger group than the 150 that Dunbar posits. The size of the brain that we have doesn’t change, but the technology to augment that brain is growing in ways that we don’t understand yet. Does this change your hard wiring? Maybe. And we’re going to find out over the next several years or decades as social networking and wearable computing become more ubiquitous.

Get more kismet, or making your own opportunity

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Getting more opportunities to change your destiny might seem to be a dangerous choice if you are focused on loss aversion. But making more decisions (and creating additional ways to succeed and to fail) is another way of increasing your learning, opening more doors, and what Rand Fishkin calls “manufacturing serendipity.”

To folks worried about losing their time, the process of spending “at least 30% of my days filled with coffees, calls, and communication to folks outside the company from whom I’m seeking absolutely nothing and where my goal is merely to be helpful” might be ludicrous. But think of it this way: meeting new people ensures new opportunities. New opportunities beget other opportunities. And you can always choose whether to act upon (or merely think about) those opportunities.

My small contribution to this idea of manufacturing serendipity is to make a practice of introducing people in my contact universe. How does it work? Easy – every day I think either about questions people have asked me (“Do you know someone who is an expert in the non-profit world in Seattle”) or people who should know each other (“I’m new in town, and I’m wondering who would be some great people to meet”), or friends who are seeking new team members (“I need a professional Yak Herder who also knows Ruby on Rails.”)

The resullt? Between two and five personal introductions a day that have the following components:

  • The who – who are you meeting?
  • The why – why would this person be interesting to know?
  • The what – what is something that they are likely to be able to do for you?

The feedback that I’ve gotten from people who’ve been introduced this way is that this technique provides them with a great opportunity to connect, relevant context to make a better connection, and more opportunities to meet cool people.

What is an example of this sort of introduction?

An example might look like “Mary, meet John – he’s a Product Manager in Seattle who gets things done with a smile and is a great resource for learning more about Agile techniques. You should know John because he’s been a part of several small companies in the space and because he recently published an article in Fast Company – here’s a link.” I’d write a similar paragraph to introduce “Mary” to “John” and then step away and let them meet.

The goal of facilitating this introduction is just that – starting the conversation. I believe in manufacturing serendipity by connecting some of the amazing people I’ve met and making more of these connections every day. Is it work? A little, and it also increases the chance of meeting people who will enlighten and enhance your life (who you just haven’t met yet.)

Postscript – you should also read Fred Wilson’s excellent piece on the Double-Opt-In introduction, which as Dan Shapiro points out in the comments is an even more effective way to introduce people by making sure that they both want to be introduced – thanks, Dan, for the suggestion!

Your goal should be: connect online to connect offline

The #SM301 hallway convo turned into a hallway lunch.
photo by Tac Anderson

On Friday, I attended the SM301 conference, and couldn’t help overhearing, over and over again, “I think we’ve met – I recognize you from your Twitter picture!” and “it’s great to finally put a name to a face and not just a Twitter handle.” I made connections in person (finally) with Liza Sperling and Rod Brooks, caught up with Tac Anderson before he disappears to London for two years (sniff), and realized that the brilliance of social media is that it allows you to connect with people you might never have known – and that the true value doesn’t reveal itself until you also actually connect offline with those people.

Mike Whitmore told a touching story about social media has changed his life and allowed him to bounce back from painful personal events, and I think his advice leads me to a broader observation about social media: that your goal should be to connect online to connect with people offline.

Here are a few ways that you can do this:

Take the next action and be human

The next time you’re clicking a link on Facebook to send someone a birthday hello on their wall, go ahead and do it (and then, send them a personal note or card to let them know that you’re thinking about them.) Or call someone and set a time to meet for coffee. or just do something that lets the other person know that you value their time and their connection. You never know what that will mean to the other person, but I guarantee that it will mean at least as much as it means to you.

Send a friend interesting information at an unexpected time

If you’re actively listening to your friends, you’ll also find out about things that matter to them. Wouldn’t it be cool if your friends sent you cool information (a link, an article, or a video) about a topic or interest that matters to you the next time they found it? (Yep, I think that would be cool too.)

If you send that “I’m thinking of you” link with a one or two-sentence description of why that content makes you think of that person, you’ll be on your way to becoming a valuable provider of interesting information (always a good thing.)

Go Out of Your Way To Help

We’ve all been in this situation: “can you help me to do x next Thursday/weekend/whenever?” and the first response that might go through your head is “mmmm. I’m not sure I want to do that.” When you go out of your way to help someone, you’ll feel good about it (and they will too.)

You can do all of these things online (and I’m sure you are already doing that) – and think of how much more meaningful it will be for you to take the same energy you’re investing in a RT, “like”, or “follow” and to show your friends that you’re thinking of them. You’ll be glad you did it, and they will be too.

Connector, Maven, or Salesperson?

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Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2000 book The Tipping Point, describes three types of people who innovate and foster change.  Connectors, Gladwell writes, are the hubs that allow different social networks and groups to contact each other, like the friend you have who can always figure out how find the right contact for the right task. Mavens introduce their friends to new ideas and concepts, are are always happy to share their knowledge with a larger group and to be the expert on a specific topic.  Finally, Salespeople are able to take almost any idea and shape it to appeal to a variety of different audiences using the language and style of that audience.

How you can use Gladwell’s types to your advantage

You may not fancy yourself to be any of these types, but learning how to take best advantage of their characteristics is key for improving your networking overall business skills.  We should all try to be the connectors to our spheres of influence, the mavens who find and introduce new concepts to these trusted groups, and practice our sales skills by framing these ideas in the context of the people listening to the idea.

You are a connector (you just might not realize it)

“Come on, ” you say.  “I’m not into this networking thing.  I use LinkedIn when I need to find a job.”  Ah, gentle reader, but when will you need to find your next job, or more importantly, your next opportunity?  The truth is, all of those opportunities are already around you.  We are all part of communities, whether they are based on our work friends, our personal interests and hobbies, our clubs, churches, and synagogues, or simply the people that we see every day as we go on our daily commute.  You should meet more of them.  Don’t worry — it’s not a lifetime commitment to support an undying friendship — it’s just a way to reach out and to meet someone new.  You never know what you might learn.  And then next time you need support from your network, it will be easier to ask.

Pick something you love and make yourself a maven for that subject

We all have interests — esoteric or not — and although you may not realize it, if you’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about or doing that interest, you’re likely to be an expert.  Even if you’re not the expert (as defined by Gladwell as having spent about 10,000 hours in your lifetime working at something), you’re probably very very good at it and have spent more time thinking about that thing than many other people.  I like to paint pictures of signs.  I don’t know as much as I could about the history of these signs, the advertising that spawned them, or the history of the Interstate Highway System — but I talk to people who care about old signs and it’s endlessly interesting to me.  So, find the thing you like, learn more about it, and share it with your network.

Sell your ideas (without selling)

The best salespeople make you feel that you came up with the idea to buy their product or service and that it solves a deep-seated pain for you.  Or, they ask you questions and find the right solution that matches the way that you view the world and what you need.  They also don’t sell you things you don’t need, know when they’re selling a bit too loudly, and should have your best interests in mind.  That is, the best salespeople are mavens and connectors who identify a need that you have, are experts on the topic that matters to you, and can connect you to the resources and people you need to make you feel that the ultimate solution is … of course … to buy their product.  Or not — because as it turns out, the connections and information you gain today might result in a sale tomorrow.

Which of Gladwell’s types are you — Connector, Maven, or Salesperson — and how are you strengthening your business or personal life by using and practicing the attributes of each of these types?

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