If you’ve not heard of it, Dunbar’s Number is a suggested 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. If this is all new to you then take a moment to read this fairly recent & very good article from Business Week.
Twitter & Me
Dunbar’s Number is something I’ve been cognisant of for some years and I keep coming back to. I’ve seen this dynamic play out in the work place and now I think there’s something important to recognise in Social Media, in particular Twitter…
For some time I’ve been noticing my own human limitations in terms of the number of people I can stay connected with on Twitter. I don’t mean how many people I can or do follow… I mean how many people I can maintain some sense of a quality “connection” with.
For me “connection” is about mutuality, regard, belief in the relationship no matter how deep. It’s not necessarily friendship or love but there is always some level of personal or professional fealty. I see such “connection” as being quite different to say a professional contact.
Now I realise there are various ways we can/do utilise Twitter. For me it’s not a platform to broadcast; it’s a platform to support meaningful relationships. This sense of “connection” I’ve mentioned above is very important to me on Twitter. Following 5,000 people is personally not of any use… In fact the more people I follow, the less attention I give and the harder it is to maintain engagement with even the best of friends.
Over the last 6 months I’ve tried to follow no more than 300 people which has made a big difference. Perhaps curiously, I’ve since noticed that the number of people I can maintain a quality “connection” with seems to be around 100-200 people. Much beyond this number, Attention Dilution kicks in for me and in some way I fail to support those meaningful relationships. I think this is Dunbar’s Number at work and it’s worth paying attention to.
I make good use lists and this has help create focus and create “feeds” of info on certain areas I’m interested in. More importantly, it means I don’t to have 100’s of people in my main timeline. It’s my way of keeping in touch with what other professionals in my areas of work & interest are sharing as/when I need to. It’s been a good little strategy for me.
Yet it’s still not quite the right balance for me.
My 150 Experiment on Twitter
So I’m going to bite the bullet and half the number of people I’m following on Twitter to 150.
I sense there’s going to be a bit of pain in this process yet I believe that the learning & focus is more important.
I’ll keep using lists as a way to stay in the loop in certain areas and I’ll use LinkedIn for my professional contacts. I’m actually curious what this experiment will reflect in terms of LinkedIn – I suspect nothing but who knows… expect a blog post in Spring!
In the meantime, wish me luck!
a brave challenge for someone as engaging as you! As someone who’s currently re-evaluating their involvement with social media, I wish you great discoveries in this journey.
Social media, as with other things (e.g drinking, reading etc!) can become a habit rather than a genuine interest, so a period of re-evaluation can be greatly beneficial I know that you won’t have made this decision without due consideration and I greatly look forward to hearing an update on your thoughts with this.
p.s. As I’m currently ‘on a break’ – does that make me an auto-delete?!? 😉
Thanks Beth – love your point about habit vs genuine interest – so true. It’s interesting to see the response and curiosity this is raising… there’ll definitely be follow up posts on this experience!
Auto-delete? Everyone I’ve unfollowed has been with due consideration… now if you didn’t come back to Twitter I might need to “give a seat” to someone else 😉
I’m going to watch and chat to you about this with interest…. Back to my can a whisper be as powerful as a shout point on earlier posting, I have a notion that this concentration, distilling down, might be useful and powerful…. And power in small numbers is contrary to what many people would have you believe, yet makes perfect sense…. Interesting interesting.
Rich food for future conversations… Good.
Power in small numbers, a whisper can be as powerful as a shout, connectedness… it’s all there for us to see and we know how to access it. We just need to give ourselves permission.
I’m already noticing the shift in quality that’s happening for me in this experiment – more later!
I keep meaning to write something about circles of trust.
This has edged me closer.
I love that you’ve used the plural (circles) – it’s not about singularity in my opinion but it is about recognising trust. Look forward to that post!
Interesting, I’ve read that W.L. Gore organizes their entire company around this principle. The founder noticed that beyond 200 or so employees it was difficult to have/maintain strong relationships with people. So every time a facility gets up to about 250 employees they build a new building, keeping the people in each building strongly connected. It also perhaps lets the company grow without losing the sense of being a small company. Of course, there are downsides, tradeoffs, and opportunity costs in every approach, but clearly Gore feels the human connections are important to their results and worth the effort.
Spot on Broc and I don’t see WL Gore as a radical outlier as perhaps some may see company’s like Semco. There’s something fundamental here & the more I look around, the more I see the pattern repeating…
>>> Schools – each year/grade has an upper limit, thereafter a new school is justified… 150/250 seems around the ballpark in my experience.
>>> Planes – the most popular passenger jet is the Boeing 737. How many seats? Around 150.
Perhaps there are other explanations but this feels like a gut instinct worth following!
Fascinating post David and worthy of my reflection. As someone who is constantly tinkering with my social media approach I certainly haven’t found congruence yet. Focus on broadcast or relationships is an interesting one… and I like the idea of greater focus on a few quality relationships.
Thanks Karen! I do think there’s a challenge here when running your business between separating the individual from the company you want to represent. As an individual I (clearly!) favour the focus on quality. However, for a company I don’t see anything particularly wrong with more broadcast/sharing than conversation… it’s probably more appropriate in many circumstances.
However, if you are running a small business and trying to build business through Twitter I think you either need to choose which of these paths you are going to follow or consider running 2 accounts – if you have the time & inclination!
If this has captured your imagination and you’re struggling with Facebook (I’ve left FB twice now…) then I recommend this article from @JuliaAngwin :
I’ve just read a new blog which provides a link to very interesting tool to estimate how much time you need to spend reading Twitter every day JUST to keep up with what the people you follow are tweeting.
When I did this for my number of followers (approx 1200) I would need 14 hours each day… so the stark reality is that I’d never read most of what was shared… Contrast that with 150 people and I’d need 1hr 45 to read EVERYTHING they posted… I don’t have that time but it’s alluring close to achievable. Worth thinking about I think!
Here are the links mentioned. Have a play with the 2nd one :-
David, your blog post has got me thinking which, I believe, is a sign of a great blog post, thank you!
My own ‘journey’ was that I found it easy to engage with (and read) all the tweets from the 20 people I followed when I first joined twitter. As my connections grew, I got to the point where I really struggled to read every tweet from every person I followed but I made a big effort to do it and I did go through a phase where twitter consumed far too much of my time until I reached a point when I couldn’t find enough time to keep up, despite giving it a damned good try!
I then made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to treat Twitter like email and that I didn’t have to see every tweet and I could simply dip in and out as I had time. I made a conscious choice not to take the follow 150 approach and I think it comes down to why I’m on twitter: I now realise that I’m on Twitter both to spend time in community with like-minded people (across several interests – ‘people’ stuff, charity, street kids, football, technology etc.) and also to learn/be inspired/see new stuff/experience some diversity. I see this as a bit like the way I behave at a conference: I love to catch up with friends & like-minded people, and I love meeting new people with different perspectives and I do like to get a bit of both.
I’ve put a little bit of thought into creating a workflow, so I always subscribe to people’s blogs by RSS if I don’t want to miss anything they write and I’ve created a few ‘mute filters’ to exclude things that I never want to see on twitter (e.g. ‘the blah-blah daily is out’, ‘my week on twitter’, ‘I’m at..’ (4square checkins) etc.). When I use twitter on my phone, it is normally when I only have 2 minutes to spare so I do use twitter lists so that I only ever see a subset of tweets when I’m dipping in briefly but I see the whole variety when I dip in from my computer or iPad.
So, I have a workflow that works for me. That said, I have no idea what that looks like for other people and there is a danger that I might come across as rude/disinterested if somebody assumes I will read every one of their tweets and this is probably the first time I’ve told anybody how I approach twitter. Which brings me onto my final point of reflection: teams are comprised of people with different strengths, values, and personality types and they sometimes struggle because of poor communication and a lack of appreciation of difference. Being a successful part of lots of twitter teams might require really good communication skills as we move forwards!
Now, I’m off to dip into twitter for 2 minutes……
Thanks for sharing your journey, thoughts & practice Ian! I think there’s great learning/reflection in doing it for yourself and more importantly for others…. there’s no single best way but role modelling might be useful for many.
The links I shared above this morning made me think of the diversity challenge. In essence, by limiting my following to 150 I constrain the diversity of tweets & info that I come across… My thinking/feeling has been that there’s a tipping point beyond which diversity can no longer create meaningful difference as the diversity of information becomes noise/confusion. Time is a meaningful factor but I think there’s also something about comprehension & retention of information too.
I think there’s some deeper learning in there for teams and even twitter teams… something about finding balance, clarity and appropriateness for purpose in the connections you maintain perhaps?
“finding balance, clarity and appropriateness for purpose in the connections you maintain” sums it up nicely. Nicely put.
Here’s my follow up post sharing in a bit more detail what the first month has been like :-