There seems to be some order in the chaos of relationships.

Most of you know Dunbar’s Number. It’s the idea that each and everyone of us has a limited social bandwidth:

“Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. […] No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.”

As we entered industrial society, family- and tribe sizes decreased. Paired with the acceleration of mass media, celebrities started to play an even more significant role in our lives. The strange mass media phenomenon is that certain individuals tends to be included in many people’s tribes, but without reciprocity, of course.

However, in a social media world where you can walk with individuals who you haven’t physically met or spoken to in decades, while still knowing what they had for breakfast, the dynamics of groups are put to the test.

Moreover, I would say I do know 150 people that I’ve spent time with over the years. But I also know 150 colleagues that I’ve had. I would say I know 150 people from the PR industry, for sure. And I know at least 150 social media naturals., and so on. How does this work? I appreciate this model by Viil Lid, PhD candidate in Communication & Information Sciences at University of Hawaii:

How we as individual shift between roles and communities.

When I’m asked what makes the “social media revolution” so special, I always say that never before in human history have we seen human groups forming at such speeds, almost totally independent of demographic factors. It’s the amplification of Dunbar’s Number at interest group level — not due to any sudden increase in our capability to sustain more than 150 relationships.

What makes the effects of digital spread show likeness to viral infections are the fact that there are boundary spanners, individual nodes who has existing relationships in several different types of interest networks. For each of these networks, Liid once again shows us a model that I’ve been using on several of the seminars I’ve given:

We are able to sustain larger networks as ties go weaker.
  • Inner core (3-5 people)
  • Semi-private layer (<150 people)
  • Superficial layer (>150 people)

How many “Dunbar number interest tribes” can a single individual sustain? If we dig deeper into this question, we must also determine the strength of the bindings between individuals. Interestingly enough, we see Dunbar’s number in action once again:

How we form groups based on layers.
  • Support clique (3-5 people)
  • Sympathy group (12-20 people)
  • Band (30-50 people)
  • Clan (150 people)
  • Megaband (500 people)
  • Tribe (1,000-2,000 people)

For social media marketing, this explains:

  • Social doesn’t scale, but tapping into several different and pre-existing interest group systems does
  • Spread is dependent not primarily on volume exposure, but on niche social incentives
  • What you expect from an individual depends on their layer of engagement, not their demographics

To build trust is a journey from the periphery to the center. You start any relationship, whether to an individual or a brand, by being a stranger. Not every stranger becomes a friend and the deeper the relationship, the bigger the gravitational effort is required. If you’re creating a campaign, it’s important to cater to the inner circles for sure, but don’t forget the outer circles.

This also explains why true passion and authenticity serves as shortcuts to success, why sharing is caring and good for business. The smart digital strategist will understand this new landscape; not by scaling for clicks or opting for viral content, but by understanding the dynamics of social psychology and leveraging datadriven marketing strategies.

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash.


  1. Ah. I tried to comment before when I read this via @zite:disqus except it failed.

    I was meaning to write a similar post. You saved me from doing all the thinking!

    How many groups am I in with 150+ people. 

    Wow. That’s quite a list

    I love jumping spaces from Fashion to CRM to B2B / BI software to board games to consumer web / social media apps.

    I’ve always felt Dunbar was flawed and that Social Media was raising the (dun)bar!

    Thanks for the Tweet. That made it easy to find my way back! You can’t beat a digital footprint.

    Looking forward to reading more of you posts

    • Looking forward seeing some deep digging into Mr Dunbar! :)

      The Disqus commenting system drives me crazy by the way, I’m looking into switching to LiveFyre, but I have some issues with commenting importing… hopefully I’ll get some support and can fix this soon.

      Extra thanks for sharing by the way, your sharing really made some ripples! :)

      • Livefyre’s support is second to none. Just @ mention them with your problem. I use them for me and for listly.

  2. @nickkellet:disqus  thanks for the link. There are some great things going on here, especially getting firm on the notion of scaling. What I most take from here are the two lower numbers (support clique and sympathy group). From my experiences these two zones aren’t paid attention to enough, and they spin out of my essential notions of trianglization as a social media form (always speaking to the invisible 3rd). These are the gestation groups and require specific nourishing I believe. Great article. Lots to be sifted through.

    • Thanks. I’m thinking of creating a strategy template for how this could look on a pice of paper for a dummy brand. I think that could serve as a good starting point for a discussion on how to implement this kind of thinking.

      • I loved Kevin’s Invisible 3rd notion from the moment he mentioned it. I use the term Lurkers a lot – We’d been into a conversation on G+ about dunbar, which was why I flipped Kevin and Ric the link.

        Thanks for the nudge @mediasres:disqus – Did you ever write a post on the invisible 3rd?

        •  Nick, I’ve never written explicitly about the invisible 3rd, as per Social Marketing or Media, but I do believe this forms what I would call “a social molecule”, a fundamental way of expressing oneself such that molecular bonds can be made between yourself, your possible interlocutor, and the 3rd. I would love to write about this though. I’ve written about it only in Philosophical contexts as it relates to Epistemology and also in consulting contexts for instance in training people how to community manage.

  3. thxs for a great post! I will refer to it in the future. I don’t know what kind of experience you have from small sociatis and how they use social medias mostly Facebook. Where I live ( aland islands)  we have already used networking like that you mentioned long time before social media. Now with Facebook it has been amplified and I can see signs that it has started to change our communication behavior. I have written about here, unfortunate is it in Swedish

    • I know there quite a few Swedes lurking around here, so your tip on more reading is much appreciated! :)

      Very interesting parallel to small communities with a pre-digital existence.

  4. very interesting Jerry! I’d love to read more on this topic, especially an elaboration on what you think might happen from a business perspective when attracting the wrong interest groups into the funnel. From where I look that is most likely the case when a lot of companies are entering social media for the wrong reasons (everyone else is doing it, we need to in order for anyone to know we exist etc). What’s your general advice for businesses defining right and wrong audiences for them, where is a good place to start, so to say?

    • Great input as always, Mattias. I think segmentation is a key element. I see so many discrepancies between the community a brand WANT and the community a brand actually HAS.

      A good place to start is to skip the traditional demographic segmentation. I think marketing gimmicks like DINK (double income no kids) are becoming more and more useless, to be frank. Instead we need to segment on basis a) how people communicate and b) what people communicate.

      Psychographics, incentive mapping, level of engagement, influence, sentiment etc. There’s a lot of data points to work from. If there’s a big enough data set, even weaker tools (like sentiment) provides good indications for creating strategies.

      But I’m just scratching the surface now of course, I would love to collaborate on a post on how to do a segmentation of “publics” using existing tools and data sets!

  5. Thank you for the post and great description of today’s Dunbar’s number. It’s a great reading. I have a question though, regarding the ‘sharing is carrying’ piece you mention in your article. How much should we share with the different layers? Should you say the message should be consistent throughout all 3 of them (inner, semi-private and superficial)? Or perhaps some differentiation should be in order? Cheers!

    • Hey Denise! I’ve been thinking about that a lot. On the hand, nothing really beats one-to-one specific communication, but on the other hand resources aren’t exactly infinite. So where and how to find the balance?

      Maybe this could be a model?

      The value proposition to each Interest Group should be consistent, i.e. the messaging regarding what the brand is all a about from a consumer perspective. But what you can ask from the consumer/community in terms of engagement should be diversified.

      For instance, the closest circle you can ask to co-create. The next circle you can incentivize to share and discuss what’s been co-created. And the outer circle you simply give them an online experience.

      There’s a cool old-school model (try searching for “1-9-90 Rule”) which could be used as a differentiator.

      • Hey Jerry! Thanks for the reply. Great input. I was actually thinking of something very similar, but was not sure if this would be the way to go, due to the lack of resources. I believe differentiation is very important, but I can’t seem to see it put to work in an online community setting, like Facebook for example.
        I think it is more important to focus on one core message/engagement technique that can relate to everyone in the community and to outsiders of course, rather than creating different levels of engagement. I mean, at the end of the day all members will have access to the same message and they don’t like to be differentiated.Of course, you can argue that some specific involvement/co-creation could be achieved through 1 on 1 communication, but that’s hard to achieve in my opinion, not to mention all the resources that will be consumed doing so. Maybe there is a why of having the best out of the two worlds?!

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