Home > LinkedIn, Personal Network, Trust > Dunbar’s Number – is it 22,500 in practice?

Dunbar’s Number – is it 22,500 in practice?

There are probably two key numbers that are referred to in Personal Networking – they are 6 and 150. Six being from “Six Degrees of Separation” – the idea that everyone is at most six steps away from any other person on Earth. One Hundred and Fifty coming from Robin Dunbar, the British Anthropologist who created the theory that the limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships is 150 (Dunbar’s Number).

I’ve absolutely no problem with Dunbar’s work – and you will have seen in previous posts that I reference it a lot. However, I’ve always struggled with the “Six Degrees of Separation” bit. It’s not that I disagree with the theory – but I cannot see how it is usefully

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applied to a Personal Network. Maybe I am being unambitious – but do I really want to make those 6 hops to meet Barack Obama or the Queen?

There was a good article by Michael Southon in the FT Weekend “Networking is all about quality”. It’s well worth a full read – and his sign off pointed me in the right direction:-

So my advice for all business people, whether they are expert networkers or more naturally reserved, is to go through your online address books, identify the 150 people you like most, and make some quality time for them.

The mathematics is on your side. They also have 150 people they like and trust, which makes a total of 22,500 people in your close circle, or one degree separated. Whatever you do for a living, this is easily enough potential business for you and your company.

Mike hit the nail on the head. There might be Six Degrees of Separation – but it’s the first level (where the trust is focussed) that you should put your energy into. This creates a magical (and believable) number of 22,500 people you could make a realistic connection with. Eureka!!

Now I understand why I get uncomfortable when LinkedIn tells me that my 194 Connections link you to 3,860,237+ professionals!! Unbelievable!!

Personal Networking is about building a community around you that has integrity, trust and generosity – and if each of those “connections” has a similar community … then a realistic group of 22,500 people can be your Personal Network. I’m comfortable with that….. Thank you, Mike.

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  1. November 3, 2010 at 6:42 pm | #1

    All extremely interesting stuff – and well written / analyzed to boot.

    Perhaps the only “issue” I might have with any of these calculations / numbers / ways of looking at networking, would be to actually make a choice between the many people I trust, respect, admire, love, and fully intend to remain connected to, then arrive ONLY at 150, and in any way shape or form put a number next to them. I realize this number would only be theoretical unless one were into the minutiae of ranking them 1 to 150 (and that would be extreme indeed). Then there is the question mark in my head as to which of these 150 would actually reciprocate (i.e. would I end up on THEIR list if they were to do the same thing?). Yikes… scary.

    I realize this is all about whom one could maintain a “stable social relationship” with. But how exactly do you define “stable”? From the years I spent in California over 25 years ago, I still count very reliable and close people. We may not see each other for years on end, but we do stay in touch and occasionally dive back into each others’ lives with gusto. The several first months I spent in China back in 2001, I made a number of strong connections which last til this day. Amongst the friends in Montana made over the last 2 years, I feel some will be lifelong connections, while others will fade away either by their agency or my own (or rather lack of any agency on either of our parts), even though while in Montana they did count as “stable”. Partly location, partly time are responsible for shifts in the realities of connection.

    So, not to put too fine a point on it Phil, do I count amongst your 150, right now? And if so, why was there a vacancy? Simply because that stability you speak of is actually quite time-based. Am I right?

    (The above comments all rather light-heartedly made, musing… not challenging…)

    • November 3, 2010 at 10:56 pm | #2

      Hi Laury. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Your raise some very interesting points – and certainly I like challenging the Dunbar’s number myself!

      I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about “Britain’s Best Networker” – Simon Johnson. I think if you analysed how he did business in his local community in East Anglia – he would have a classic 150 connections. Dunbar’s analysis was of historical communities – who didn’t really move very far (and I think Simon is a modern day example for this for BNI). Your lifestyle (and mine) is a lot more “modern” and we live (and have lived) our lives in many different “worlds”.

      If you think of the classic old village of 150 people – there would have been 2-3 people who would have actually have gone out in to the “world” and “connected”. Therefore, if you asked a classic villager (say 100 years ago) who their contacts were – it would pretty much be the same 150 as everyone else (except for the 2-3 people who ventured from the village).

      In a modern world – we all seem to venture out of the village …. and that’s why I think the Dunbar’s Number for a community these days is more like the 22,500. It also makes trust & integrity so important – because your Personal Network is so far reaching.

      My hunch is that 150 is still a fundamental number that a human being can sustain a meaningful relationships with. However, we have a much greater community of “weak ties” that we can move in and out when we need them or they need us.

      You do count in my 150 – and I’m not telling you who’s moved out. That’s the cool thing about Personal Networks – it’s not a social network (it’s MINE) … we don’t have to share everything!

      • December 11, 2010 at 3:24 pm | #3

        Hiya Phil, only just read this reply of yours to my comment of over a month ago. Thanks for taking the time to do so. I agree that the beauty of something being our own (i.e. personal to us, and therefore as private as we want it to be) is what makes personal networking triumph any day over social networking. Like apples and pears, the two don’t compare. Each has its own value, set of parameters, and all that jazz. By the way, totally different subject… I was happy to meet Dan. He came over as I’d asked him for a quick IT debug, he ended up staying for stew and now he’s interesting in some of what Joe and I can offer him.

  2. November 6, 2010 at 1:27 pm | #4

    I’ve never placed much stock in the six degrees having any practical value, but the 22.5K FOAF (Friend Of A Friend) number makes sense to me. My +/-150 are deep relationships, with huge trust baked in. The second degree (hope I don’t get burned!) leading to 22.5K seems very reasonable because the first degree isn’t weak ties.

    • November 6, 2010 at 6:18 pm | #5

      Hi Joel. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I totally agree about the six degrees not having any practical value – but I suppose the idea might open people’s eyes to the possibilities/serendipity of building relationships. FOAF is a good way of categorising this jump to the 22,500. Do you think your deep relationships might be around 150? I think it feels right – but interested to know how it fits for someone like you who is traveling, writing, connecting? Speak soon. P

      • November 6, 2010 at 7:47 pm | #6

        Despite a decade of extensive online activity and a variety of disparate networks, I suspect my deep relationships are about that number. I notice, though, that the membership changes; the least deep relationships falling by the wayside when replaced by something more filling.

  3. November 6, 2010 at 9:43 pm | #7

    Hi Joel. I’m working on a way to visualise Personal Networks – the new venture I am starting is called VizWho. We’re just doing various case studies mapping the PNs of individuals – and it’s a really interesting (and very, very personal process). It’s really difficult to ever see us building an advocacy network by people sharing the information with their friends (as they’ll be upset if they are in/out, not as close as a person they don’t like, etc). You’ll see from an early exchange in this post with Laury – she’s a recent contact who has leapt in to my 150 …. but I’m not saying (and really don’t know) who is out! Very personal stuff if you try to grade your friends, who’s in, who’s out – wouldn’t want your social network looking over your shoulder at it! You can see why I am intrigued by the area of Personal Networks…

    • November 6, 2010 at 10:03 pm | #8

      A tool for personal use would be very interesting, but as you say, fraught with peril for public viewing.

      Is there a shared definition of a deep relationship? Are these fully two-way, or do we also want to visualise the one-way networks: folks who influence me, or whom I influence?

      • November 6, 2010 at 11:21 pm | #9

        Interesting you mention shared definitions. One of the things on my blog to-do list is to compile a synonym list of terms (one man’s connector is another person’s hub). Deep relationships would fit in to this.

        The case studies/research project at the moment uses a visual way to “grade” the relationship you have with a person. It also maps the “worlds” you operate in – so one contact can be in many worlds and will probably have a different level of relationship in each (e.g. colleague I work with every day at work – but not someone who I would invite home to meet the family). If you have the time – I did a blog post that includes an excellent presentation by Paul Adams of Google.

        I assume that a “deep” relationship has to be two way. I think the “deep” bit means that there is an intermingling of two lives. I’d be surprised if when one person says that they have a “deep” relationship with another that this is not reciprocated. If it’s not – then there’s got to be a disconnect (or maybe dishonesty) going on. When you are talking “deep” – it’s not the “What a fool belives” scenario!?

        Let’s talk about the influencers. For instance, I’ve taken a conscious decision not to “LinkIn” to anyone I don’t know personally. My blog started (finally) because Mitch Joel’s book spurred me in to action – but I’d not put him in my Personal Network (or LinkIn) unless I had personally engaged. He’s an influencer – but not in my Personal Network. If you now look at that from Mitch Joel’s perspective – he would not put me in his Personal Network – even if I’ve bought his book, commented on his blog and sat at his presentations. I suppose Seth is building an outer-layer to his Personal Network with Triiibes – maybe a lot of the influencer/influenced fits in to the weak ties category.

        Thanks for the probing questions – it’s really helpful to have someone testing my thinking. P

  4. November 7, 2010 at 12:05 am | #10

    Understood regarding deep connections being two-way by nature; makes sense. And therefore, that wouldn’t be simply influence but, as you as, a blending at some level.

    I’ll check out the post about relationship mapping; sounds interesting.

  5. December 11, 2010 at 3:30 pm | #11

    You know in this regard “personal” and “deep” and “network” and “connection” and all the other terms will need to be defined by you and presented in your final offering / website / tool because not everyone has a full handle on these words. Partial or imcomplete or no-definitions can be a block to understanding.

    Phil O’Brien :
    Interesting you mention shared definitions. One of the things on my blog to-do list is to compile a synonym list of terms (one man’s connector is another person’s hub). Deep relationships would fit in to this.
    The case studies/research project at the moment uses a visual way to “grade” the relationship you have with a person. It also maps the “worlds” you operate in – so one contact can be in many worlds and will probably have a different level of relationship in each (e.g. colleague I work with every day at work – but not someone who I would invite home to meet the family). If you have the time – I did a blog post that includes an excellent presentation by Paul Adams of Google.
    I assume that a “deep” relationship has to be two way. I think the “deep” bit means that there is an intermingling of two lives. I’d be surprised if when one person says that they have a “deep” relationship with another that this is not reciprocated. If it’s not – then there’s got to be a disconnect (or maybe dishonesty) going on. When you are talking “deep” – it’s not the “What a fool belives” scenario!?
    Let’s talk about the influencers. For instance, I’ve taken a conscious decision not to “LinkIn” to anyone I don’t know personally. My blog started (finally) because Mitch Joel’s book spurred me in to action – but I’d not put him in my Personal Network (or LinkIn) unless I had personally engaged. He’s an influencer – but not in my Personal Network. If you now look at that from Mitch Joel’s perspective – he would not put me in his Personal Network – even if I’ve bought his book, commented on his blog and sat at his presentations. I suppose Seth is building an outer-layer to his Personal Network with Triiibes – maybe a lot of the influencer/influenced fits in to the weak ties category.
    Thanks for the probing questions – it’s really helpful to have someone testing my thinking. P

  1. December 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm | #1

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