Is there a finite limit to the number of friends we can stay in contact with? It would appear so, at least according to Dunbar’s number, which dictates that our maximum number for meaningful relationships with others hovers around 150.
Alasdair Wilkins of io9 has a fascinating post looking at the studies of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who – time and time again – kept coming back to 150 as the normal human threshold for quality relationships. io9 says:
“[Dunbar] examined human social groupings throughout history, and he kept coming back to that 150 number. It’s the number of people who lived in ancient Neolithic farming villages, the basic unit size for the armies of both ancient Rome and modern times, and the maximum size of most nomadic tribes.”
The emphasis is on quality relationships, in that a community’s best interest is in staying together. It makes sense that a life or death fighting unit would be interdependent – same thing with ancient tribes, who lacked the resources to feed themselves on a larger scale. But what about digital relationships facilitated through social media?
A team of researchers at Indiana University decided to test this theory on Twitter. Taking a look at over 380 million tweets to find patterns in user behavior, the researchers concluded that there was indeed a finite limit to the number of other Twitter users we could follow before becoming overwhelmed: somewhere between 100 and 200.
Makes sense. It’s this focus on maintaining high-quality relationships that drives Path, the photo-focused social network with a maximum limit of 50 friends, as opposed to less substantial online relationships. Even Facebook recently adopted a similar philosophy, limiting your newsfeed to a more manageable 250 friends.
As for Twitter, I guess the benefits of following less than 200 other accounts depends on your agenda for using the service. Do you use it like an RSS feed to gather news and information? Or do you use Twitter for personal reasons, like for staying in contact with friends you otherwise wouldn’t really talk to? There’s no right answer, but it’s something to keep in mind, especially with that new Twitter “Follow” button.
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