Social media, Dunbar’s number, and prioritizing relationships

"UX Brighton 2011 - Robin Dunbar" by Katariina Järvinen on Flickr

Have you ever heard of Dunbar’s number? It’s the theoretical number of stable relationships a person can maintain at one time. Generally, most estimates put Dunbar’s number at 150, although it can be as high as 230.

I think about Dunbar’s number every time I get a request from a prospective LinkedIn connection or Facebook friend, or when I consider whether a social network is worth joining. Every additional relationship that we try to manage, or every additional pull on our attention, puts the quality of our existing relationships at risk. That’s not to say, of course, that we should never accept additional friend or connection requests, or never try new social networking tools. We should, however, give careful consideration to the opportunity cost inherent in doing so.

Is it possible that social media has increased Dunbar’s number or made it irrelevant altogether? Well, Dunbar’s number was first proposed in 1992, so it’s not an ancient theory. But even if you doubt whether Dunbar’s thinking is still valid, remember that one thing hasn’t changed: the number of hours in a day. If you spread yourself too thin via social media, something’s gotta give. Maybe it’s your job–the work you would be capable of doing if you put in more time. Maybe you end up staying late to catch up, and your relationship with your family and friends takes a hit. Or maybe you try to do it all and lose a few hours of sleep. Eventually, your health’s going to suffer–and, by extension, so will all your relationships.

The key is knowing your limit. How many relationships can you maintain before you start to erode your relationships with those most important to you? How many different places can you try to focus your attention before you stop giving the right amount of attention to the stuff that matters most? Everyone’s answer will be a little different, but everyone’s bound by the same limitations.

The truth is, some people matter more than others. If everyone’s a priority, then no one’s a priority.

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One Response to Social media, Dunbar’s number, and prioritizing relationships

  1. Definitely food for thought!

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