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As published in the Fall 2019 edition of Stretto magazine

The Dunbar Number and Social Media

In the 1990s Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and psychologist at the University of Oxford, determined the number that defines the human limits of friendship. He concluded that, due to the size of the human brain, we can only sustain 150 meaningful relationships. Of course, there are layers above and below this number. We have an inner circle of about five people, which the TV show Friends taught us. Then we have around 15 close friends, 50 we would invite to a party, 500 acquaintances, and 1,500 with whom we could match a face and a name.

History has repeatedly proven the 150-person limit to be true, from hunting and gathering societies to military infrastructures. Jesus had an inner circle of 3. However, the number of apostles was 12. Most churches never reach more than 200 members. When a church exceeds that number of people, it has to start arranging for smaller groups so members still feel connected. The basic unit size for armies is 150. Story after story show businesses beginning to have culture issues around the 150-employee mark. Companies, churches, online gaming communities, and individuals operate differently after the 150 mark. It’s no longer possible to know everyone. “My friend Bob” becomes “The guy from marketing.”  New rules of how to interact for growth have to be put into place.

15 Yemen Road, Yemen

A lot has happened since Dunbar’s findings in the 90s. We have different clothes, smaller cell phones, and most importantly, social media. There are two potential fluctuations that could happen.

Social media may push the max limit of our outer circles, but at the cost of inner circles. Even though it gives people the ability to easily grow and maintain a list of friends, it does not change the cap of 150 meaningful relationships. We only have so much time, energy, and capacity to pour into relationships. If we pour this out on acquaintances, then we will not be able to maintain tight relationships with our five or 15.

Social media has also changed who we relate to. When digital media dominates how we maintain relationships, certainly at the 150 level and above, it introduces the idea of having relationships and acquaintances that are not people at all, but brands. Why not build a relationship with brands you love? Has that not been one of the goals of brands on social media for quite some time, even though consumers may not have realized that is what brands were doing?

Come on Ross, you’re a paleontologist; dig a little deeper

A brand gets on social to talk to people, be liked, and interact. On Instagram, you can follow people or brands. On LinkedIn, you see articles of interest from people and brands. On Facebook, you look at entertaining content from friends and brands. With social media, brands can develop a brand voice more easily than ever before and use that voice to directly communicate with the consumer. The challenge for brands is making it to consumers’ “inner circle” of social media friends. That requires digging deeper and better understanding what your brand’s best friends want to know about you. It also required understanding the nuances about the different social platforms and adjusting your content to the appropriate consumer appetites on those platforms.

Should the “circle of friends” factor change how a brand thinks about their presence on social? Absolutely. Brands should consider how consumers see them and in what circles. There truly is a finite number of slots for active relationships in the human brain, and if a brand fills one of them, it places that brand in a powerful realm of influence regarding what the consumer thinks, feels, and purchases.

Brands should think about what would make consumers want to be their friend and what type of social activity that would entail. This type of social content should not attempt to take the place of paid ads or boosting. Advertising tactics to get a message in front of the right consumer at the right time are still important. More importantly, though, ad tactics should be intentionally different from being a trusted part of someone’s life via organic interactions that inspire brand loyalty.

We are not suggesting that people don’t know the difference between being friends with a person and a brand. However, as rules change for how we maintain a limited number of active relationships, so do the rules about those with whom we relate.

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