Friend Exchange Rates

I wonder what the exchange rate is on Dunbar’s number.

Popularized by Tipping Point, Dunbar’s number suggests that there’s a limit to social cognition. Roughly speaking, 150 people can form a tight social group; any larger and closeness suffers. Inasmuch, we sacrifice intimacy and trade familiarity for breadth. Is there an optimal social mix?

I’m not critiquing Dunbar’s accuracy or claiming we cap our friendships at 150 people. (My 800 Facebook “friends” might think ill of me for saying so.) But, I inherently feel a physical limit to my intimate capacity: it’s impossibly difficult to know — to really know — a certain number of people. 

To achieve such feats in friendship, I trade intimacy for connectivity. There are ten people I have always been close with (family included), and another twenty or so that are close friends. Call it thirty.

Using 150 as a benchmark, this leaves 120 slots. Using my 800 Facebook-friends as an indicator of my extended network, this means that 800 fit into those 120 intimate slots. Very roughly speaking, I trade one close friend for 6.67 acquaintances.

By comparison, consider someone like Gary Vaynerchuk or Robert Scoble. Assume each has thirty close friends. Both hit the 5,000-friend limit on Facebook. That’s at least 42 acquaintances per close friend slot. That’s a lot of people. Both are connected to thousands more.

I wonder at what point, between the 800 I have and the 5,000 (and more) they have, can they not keep track of, let alone remember, those acquaintances.

What if I were to try to know — to really know — those 800 people I’m connected with. How far could I get?

Or would I just lose intimacy with everyone?

Is that what we’re doing to ourselves?


More: The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Sizes