Submitted by Kari Dunn Saratovsky (@socialcitizen), publisher of Social Citizens
An interview with Facebook’s “in-house sociologist” Cameron Marlow, appeared in last week’s issue of The Economist and has since created an interesting debate about the value and depth of our online social networks. Marlow looked at the size of one’s network on Facebook (in terms of number of friends) and then analyzed the rate of communication and interaction between those friends - based on comments, status updates, wall messages, etc.
Now, before sharing some of those numbers – here’s a quick lesson to help set some context. According to anthropologists, there is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships (this is also called Dunbar’s Number). Beyond this number, which is estimated to be around 150, the stability of the relationships begins to break down and connections are not as meaningful.
Think about your own network on Facebook or the people who follow you on Twitter. Most probably fit into one of these three categories:
- Actual legitimate friends: You may have known them since the playground or at college, these are the people who use social networks for staying up to date on what's happening in the lives of their closest connections, aka: "real" friends. Whether it's as mundane as what they're having for dinner, or as exciting as capturing their newborn's first steps - you take note and share in the moment.
- Information Seekers/Gatherers: These are the people who expand beyond those with whom you have pre-existing relationships. The lines may be a little blurrier, but there is an interest in networking, and sharing information with one another, most likely for professional reasons.
- Tried and True Networkers: These are people with thousands of connections in the online world, and likely equally large rolodexes. They believe connections are fundamental to their professional careers, and they make no effort in hiding it.
You can see how Marlow, breaks down the stats on Facebook users’ social behavior patterns here. But in short, an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.
These numbers got me thinking about the increasing number of nonprofit organizations who are using social networks to fundraise and interact with their members. Obviously they are doing so with varying degrees of success. I wonder what the implications are for meaningful engagement between organizations and individuals -- and whether a version of the Dunbar theory might be applicable for that kind of organizational interaction.
As noted in the Economist article, people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Or to quote the article, “Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever.”
As we see more organizations taking their fundraising and mobilization activities online, how can the right level of interaction be maintained so that the level of social networking outweighs the "broadcast" message? And, how can organizations get and maintain individuals into their "Dunbar circles?"
What do you think about the Dunbar Number’s relevance to organizational use of social networks? Is your organization taking different steps to engage online in a more meaningful with your donors, volunteers and constituents? How can organizations move beyond the 5-10% that seems to be the human threshold for meaningful interaction?
This article was originally posted on Social Citizens at http://www.socialcitizens.org/blog/what-do-all-these-friends-add-up-to by Kari Dunn Saratovsky:
Vice President of Social Innovation for The Case Foundation, blogger and general enthusiast for all things social media for social good.