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Forget Dunbar’s Number, Our Future Is in Scoble’s Number


social-graph-graphic

Photo credit: Mark Wallace

I probably don’t know about your latest job project. I don’t know what your kids are up to. I don’t know about that vacation you’ve got coming up. I can’t say what city you’re visiting for business. I have no idea that you’re having a bad day.

But I do know you’ve got a really strong take about where social software helps companies.

Why? Because that’s an area where we have a common interest. I don’t need to know all of you, as Dunbar’s Number posits. I only need to know part of you.

From Wikipedia, here’s what Dunbar’s Number is:

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.

This is a recurring issue in social networks. As in, why do people maintain large numbers of connections that can’t possibly be personal?

I like to break it people down into three types.

Three Types of Social Network Participants

I’m oversimplifying here, but this is a useful way to segment how people view their social network participation:

Close Friends: These folks view social networks as sites for staying up to date on a limited set of close connections. As in, “actual” friends.

Information Seekers: These folks, including me, expand beyond those with whom they have a pre-existing connection. Their interest is a bit of networking, and tapping information in their field.

Power Networkers: These folks amass thousands of connections. In the offline world, they’d have huge rolodexes. They want to connect with as many people as possible. Connections are fundamental to their professions. Think Chris Brogan and Robert Scoble.

The Close Friends users really want just that…updates from and interactions with their actual offline connections. When they post an update, they’ll hear from someone they know. When they read an update, it will be from someone they know. This is what Dunbar’s Number is all about.

Then there are the rest of us.

We Have Dunbar’s Number…How about Scoble’s Number?

If Dunbar’s Number is defined at 150 connections, perhaps we can term the looser connection of thousands as Scoble’s Number. The next model of social connections. Now let me explain what I’m saying here.

I’m not saying we can magically follow thousands of people closely because of social media. We can’t.

I’m not saying that we won’t have close connections that we know much more about. We will.

I am saying that a significant percentage of our online interactions will be with people about whom we know little.

That last point occurs as your connections get larger and larger. I follow 1,600 people on FriendFeed, 1,100 on Twitter. I can say from experience now that I know little about many of the people with whom I have @reply and thread conversations.

And it doesn’t bother me. I get plenty of value from these drive-by interactions.

Here’s how I differentiate interactions between Dunbar’s Number and Scoble’s Number:

scobles-number

In the top graph for Dunbar’s Number, you’re aware of a fuller range of what’s happening in someone’s life. Even if you aren’t actively trying to know about it. This is the stuff of warm friendships. You internalize a lot more information about someone, and they know a lot more about you. You develop short-hand ways of talking, and can call on older experiences to relate to new information and developments.

The bottom graph is for Scoble’s Number. Here, you only intersect socially with someone periodically. This happens when the stars align:

  • Someone is talking about a topic of interest to you
  • You happen to see this topic being discussed

Scoble’s Number is a our new reality. By maintaining a larger number of weaker connections, you can tap a wider range of opinions. People often deride “echo chamber” aspects of social media. Well, if you’re only paying attention to same people over and over, you will have created your own personal echo chamber.

This is not to say that we don’t have a more limited set of people we trust as information filters. Those people are important for keeping on top of things in a more systematic way.

But I tend to think of Scoble’s Number as a rich, chaotic frenzy of interactions that never would have occurred before social media was adopted so heavily. Online bulletin boards have this aspect, in that you “followed” thousands of participants on them. Think of molecules bouncing around, with occasional collisions. It’s these collisions where interesting reactions occur. Where you learn things you didn’t know, and you get perspective from people beyond your immediate circle.

It’s healthy. And given the growing participation in social media, and the low friction for finding and interacting with others, I see the trend as favoring Scoble’s Number.

Over time, some connections will move from being out there in your Scoble’s Number into your more personal Dunbar’s Number.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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About Hutch Carpenter
Senior Consultant for HYPE Innovation (hypeinnovation.com)

24 Responses to Forget Dunbar’s Number, Our Future Is in Scoble’s Number

  1. deepikaur says:

    Interesting post. I hadn’t known there was a term for the interaction between myself and my close connections (Dunbar’s Number). But I agree on the point that Scoble’s Number is our new reality. Twitter and FriendFeed are two prime examples. Out of all of the people I follow on both, I cannot say that I know a single person personally, or that I know much about them. We’re consuming the data we want to consume, not the data that is being fed to us.

    • deepikaur – yup, that’s the way I feel about it. Great way to put things: “We’re consuming the data we want to consume, not the data that is being fed to us.”

  2. Adam Metz says:

    H-Dog,

    Maybe I’m missing something, but where’s your definition of Attention? Can you add it in to the second or third paragraph? Good idea, but a little rough around the edges.

    • Adam – good point. I think a good answer may lie in another blog post. I’ll link to you when I write it.

  3. I believe that Internet-enabled tools play on are some fundamental human traits (conscious and subconscious) to push us towards testing the limits and types of connections that we form, use and maintain.

    The fundamental behaviours have existed for years, but new tools are enabling new interaction methods; suffice it to say we are writing the rules as we go along. Maybe “Scoble’s Number” will be a new rule :)

    We live in interesting times…

    • Taylor – yeah, the new tools are what has really changed for us. In the pre-web world, Dunbar’s number was pretty much the norm. We now have these platforms for interaction well beyond the number of people we actually know. It does create some new behaviors for us.

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  5. markdykeman says:

    Scoble’s number is another way of describing the weak ties phenomenon, which has been around for awhile. However, there’s no doubt that social media has made it much easier to form weak ties when you are culturally and geographically separated.

    Weak ties doesn’t replace the need for strong ties, though. Whether they are with friends, family, or close colleagues, there is still a need for stronger relationships built on trust that’s very hard to build when you’re separated by keyboards and computer screens.

    I do think you are correct in thinking that weak ties are becoming more prominent and probably more important than ever. I just think that they have limits.

    • Mark – good call on the weak ties. It almost seems that “weak” overstates the connecitons. They’re simple follows based on a few tweets, and then an interaction at some later time. But this particular form of a connection is one that is growing most rapidly.

  6. Sameer Patel says:

    Hutch – I imagine we’ll land up living in a world where both Dunbar and Scoble Numbers exist for every user. In my case, when I relied on Twitters Web interface, I stuck with a more Dunbar-esque model so as not to miss updates from those I knew or wanted to follow. And so I followed back very selectively. Now that I use Tweetdeck, my All friends tab is Scoble and groups I set up are Dunbar. This way I can benefit from both interactions you illustrate.

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  14. The social media tools of today are changing the way we consume content and build relationships. This requires new responses. Like you, I gain value from the “drive-by interactions,” and don’t want to be trapped in the echo chamber of social media. However, I value relationship and want to go deep.

    In my field of education, I established a Personal Learning Community. I found these connections in blogs, nings, twitter, and other social media. Yet, as I have reached out to people with common interests or a need, those connections have moved out of the Scoble Number into my Dunbar Number. It is this transfer that excites me! It is where I want to focus my energy. What can take people from the “drive-by interactions” to connecting on a deeper level? How can we use this to help each other, to collaborate, to connect? And how can we help those students in the net-generation to aggregate the mass of content and make those meaningful Dunbar Number connections?

    Thanks for your post. Fascinating stuff!

  15. Hey this is a great post. Dunbar has a scientifically well founded number. To add ANOTHER number for “the other network” however feels confusing to me. Hence (and because I work in this field for quite some time) I started to develop a new point of view: Dunbar is describing our physical abilities like we know we can run no much faster than 10 miles/hour or whatever. But tools give us the ability to expand on that.
    And unlike others say, I feel social media IS changing our abilities to socialize very much like machines changed our abilities to lift heavy weights.

    Now here is my calculation:
    Through tools we are able to keep connections with more than 150 people. I keep connections with around 1,500 people. And those are not the very loose connections but stronger ties. There are a few parameters involved like time – I won;t connect with all 1500 every day but in a coordinated rhythm that makes sense for the connected. I developed tools to make it work.
    So “Axel’s” number is 1,500 or 10x the Dunbar number. Not arguing the Dunbar number but saying with the right tools you can increase your socialization capabilities by 10x.

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  18. Excellent post, Hutch. And sheds a great light on this issue.

    The idea that the term “friendship” only means one thing is even more false now as it was before social media. We maintain all varieties of relationships (e.g. people we consider confidants, work friends, people we see occasionally but like etc.) When people scoff “no one can have that many friends”, they are neglecting the fact that we relate to people in different ways and that relationships have a broad array of values to us. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are especially useful for maintaining contact and learning from others.

    I agree with Mark that weak ties do not replace stronger ties. We all need friendships that are intimate – as well as those who will provide “rides in their car” ;) ( http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119518271549595364.html?mod=googlenews_wsj ). We can certainly have both. We now just have much more of both.

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