How fast can you really add?

by Kristin on February 12, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by curly_exp(l)osure

OK, I give in. I’ll write about numbers in social media. Again.

First I got this question in response to my 25 question post: “Of the 255 ‘friends’ listed for you on facebook, how many/what percentage are actually friends?”

Dennis, who asked the question (and who happens to be a friend—like the real life kind) also sent me a link to this related New York Times article: Friends, Until I Delete You.

Then, today, Chris Brogan posted this on his blog: Beating Dunbar’s Number. “Dunbar’s Number” refers to a theory introduced by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, that our brains can only maintain a certain number of stable social relationships. While an exact number apparently hasn’t been agreed upon, 150 is the number that’s most commonly cited. (Keep in mind that the theory was presented in 1992—more than a decade before Facebook was conceived, not that Facebook alters our cognitive capacities.)

In his post, Brogan suggests that with social media platforms and the right strategies in hand, much larger social networks can be managed. One of the strategies he suggests is keeping some sort of database to keep all the details straight and easily accessible.

I can’t quite imagine creating a data base to help me keep track of my community, but then again, I can’t imagine having nearly 19,000 readers of my blog or over 42,000 Twitter followers, like Brogan has. I would definitely need a database to maintain a slightly meaningful connection with even ten percent of those people.

Do old theories, strategies and definitions still apply?

So what’s the point of all this, you ask? What’s the point of Dennis asking how many of my Facebook friends are actual friends, and the point of Chris Brogan looking for ways to manage some version of a community that is 100 or 200 times larger than what our brains are wired to handle?

The point, I guess, is that as a society, our understanding of “community” is changing—very significantly and rapidly for many people. Words and definitions are changing, too—we have “followers” and “fans” that we can count, and when we refer to someone as a “friend” it can mean more than one thing. To help distinguish between on-line and physical communities, people in social media circles often refer to friends IRL (in real life).

In other words, it’s confusing! At least I’m confused. As I answered Dennis’ question in this post, about how many of my friends were actually friends, I tried desperately to work with a single definition of “friend,’ whether applied to people I know in person or people I’ve never met.

In the same post, I responded to a related question about how social media has changed my understanding of community. I fleshed out my confusion a bit more, struggling to describe how in some ways I feel more open about my true community including people I’ve never met in person. But in other ways I feel more old-fashioned.

It’s not just about how many details I can keep track of about people—where they live, how many kids they have, what we’ve joked together about in the past. It’s the nagging sense that trust and accountability are often missing on line, along with the bond that comes from eating a meal with someone, and having a live conversation.

In a fast-paced world, slower can sometimes be better

Since I brought up “old-fashioned” approaches to building community—and our current times seem to be characterized by doing everything bigger and faster—I’ll leave you with the comment I left today on Chris Brogan’s post:

This is an interesting post. In my 9 or 10 months on Twitter, I’ve found that the NUMBER of people in my network matters far less than the deliberate intention behind each individual connection.

In other words, if I have 300 people in my network, who I’ve collected rather quickly and randomly, without really knowing why each individual is unique and interesting to me, then I will probably feel overwhelmed by that number. A general sense of chaos will be attached to it.

But if I take my time, really examining new followers to figure out what they’re about, and maybe even holding off on following them back until there’s some sort of interaction or connection, they have a meaningful place in my network (and in my mind) from day one. It’s a much slower way to build a community, but I think being deliberate like that makes Dunbar’s limit pretty much irrelevant.

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  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    I really enjoy twitter and the small community i’ve developed on my blog and the communities i participate in on other peeps’ blogs, but i cannot stand facebook. don’t like it one bit. one, great big fake high school reunion every. single. day. chuck tweeted about it one day. did you catch it? the well-worded status updates that are like, “stressing out becaues i have to fly to rome on business.” and, of course, the endless pictures people post of their perfect lives. this is why my profile picture is a horse. my insignificant rebellion. i might be crazy.

  • http://compostermom.blogspot.com Daisy

    I don’t go for the numbers on Twitter and Plurk, either. I’d rather follow people I’ve grown to know and like than strive for a mythical number goal. That’s not what it’s about for me.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    jenx67, I really appreciate your profile picture—especially now that I know what’s behind it. :) And yes, I loved Chuck’s series of over-the-top Facebook status lines. It made me think of that famous job interview question—what is your biggest weakness?—and how people typically answer it (I’m a perfectionist, or a workaholic, etc.).

    Daisy, it’s good to know that people like you are out there, gradually getting to know others rather than trying to hit a goal. I’m sure there are plenty of other people who approach it like you do; unfortunately, the ones who are into stats and scores tend to be more in-your-face.

  • http://www.mindscene.blogspot.com Ribbon

    Hi, just popped in. I like your blog…………..Facebook is not for me. Went there once………….it was horrible :-)

    best wishes

  • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan…

    The problem is this: if I choose NOT to follow people back or not to engage them, then I’m seen as snobby and aloof. I’m seen as an elite. So, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. My method of dealing with it? Embrace the chaos and try to stay close to those who matter the most to me.

    No win, though. But hey, it’s fun trying.

  • http://www.bluewavemedia.ca Kimberly Beaven

    This seems to be a very present question as of late regarding social media, connections and the final statement of it all. Chris Brogan’s comment above highlights some of the outplay: dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. While we are building our brand and creating meaningful relationships and connections (notice I did separate those and I meant to) — no one want to appear as an elite nor spammy by just following/adding as a friend for the sake of numbers. It is not a numbers game and I think it really should not be for those who are wanting to foster better communications, grow as a person and in their business and who approach social media as a launching pad. So much can be accomplished; so much can be learned, but we need to make sure we are allowing those connections to happen. Everyone will choose the social media outlet that works best for them, be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or any of the hundreds now available. Remember, if it is just numbers you want and boast about, there will not be the draw to you from people who want meaningful connections. When someone adds me as a friend and I read their Twitter bio, read their tweets, check out their web site and only see them boasting about numbers, spamming with DM links as soon as you add them and how I can make millions with their advice, they are not followed for sure. Nothing meaningful there for me at all.

    I applaud Chris because I think he has handled the attention in social media very well. He comes across as a person you can really have a chat with. Although a very busy man fur sure, he makes you feel like he has the time to have a deep, entertaining and thought provoking discussion. A good lesson to learn and an example for all of us.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Ribbon, Facebook is definitely a complicated beast. I think a lot of people have a love-hate relationship with it. It might just be easier to decide you don’t like it, like you’ve done. At any rate, I’m glad you stopped by my blog.

    Chris Brogan, yeah, I totally see your point. The “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position is not a fun one to be in, either. Your approach. though—embracing the chaos and staying close to the people that matter—seems to strike just the right balance.

    Kimberly Beaven, this is a great summary of where I see the main benefits of social media: an opportunity “to foster better communications, grow as a person and in their business and…as a launching pad.” You nailed it! That’s the motivation, and luckily we have many great models and teachers, like Chris, to learn from.

  • http://www.sarahealy.com Sara

    Kristen — I envy you. How perfectly you got me to from laughing out loud to really thinking about friendship and how it has changed in many ways.

    I’m older and my contacts with people have been mostly face-to-face. I like this as it gives me a FULL sense of the person. When I was a life coach, however, I was amazed at how easily I felt connected to people I only spoke with over the phone. Now, I have good friends I’ve never met in person. I didn’t think this was possible…but it is…for me, at least. Great post. Thanks for making me laugh and think at the same time :)

  • http://bettyduffy.blogspot.com Betty Duffy

    The thing I find interesting about blogging, is that it’s sort of like sending a personal letter out to whomever wants to read it. Personal blogs can seem very intimate even if they’re selective in what they present. As a consequence, I can read your blog, feel like I know you, yet if I choose not to comment or make my presence here known, you have no idea I exist. It’s so odd. You do a good job of engaging your readers in conversation here on your blog, so while I might lurk on other blogs, when I’m invited to weigh in on things, I usually do.

    Anyway, I think your point was about the social networking sites, but my point I guess is that, I might feel compelled to follow you on twitter because I’ve read your blog, and I think, “Oh that’s Kristin, my divorced, liberal, Christian, mommy friend. I know her. I know the view from her front porch, and how she’s going to talk to her kids about sex.” But unless I’ve commented on your blog or something, you probably have no idea who I am.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Sara, saying that I made you “laugh and think at the same time” is perhaps the greatest compliment I could hope to be given! I’m glad you resonated with my thoughts and found something of value in them, even though they seem very half-baked to me, much of the time. :)

    Betty Duffy, YES! That’s exactly right. There are all of these people out there who know so many personal details about me (or you, for readers of your blog), who are no more than a stat in Google Analytics. It IS a very strange thing. And then here’s the other side of the strangeness: I can totally imagine getting in my car and driving two hours to visit you, like we’re “real” friends, even though we’ve never met or even talked on the phone! We both write personal blogs, though, so we have open windows into one another’s hearts and minds. It’s all very surreal, isn’t it?

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