social networks

Should Dunbar’s Number Affect Your Organization’s Approach Online?

1 Comment 31 August 2009


Should Dunbar’s number inform the way organizations act online?

As explained by Wikipedia, “Dunbar’s number is a theoretical 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.” Within online social networks, Dunbar’s number is seen as the upper limit of the number of people with whom one will converse regularly and meaningfully – this could be daily, weekly, or more often. Taken very simply, it means that I can maintain real, meaningful, online relationships with a finite number of people. For me, that number is far less than 150 – it hovers around 75. For others, it can be as high as 290.

On a social network, a corporate entity or organization can create a profile and “act” as an individual. (There are exceptions, such as Linkedin.) The reach of the internet allows a freedom of interaction with customers that is difficult to create offline. Organizations have a duel purpose online: business objectives and creating loyal relationships. These can be in conflict. However, common wisdom holds that the engaged stakeholder will also act on behalf of the organization (volunteer/donate/take action).

Many nonprofits do a great job of creating personal relationships online with their fans, while others provide a fertile environment to allow their fans create relationships with each other online. In light of Dunbar’s limited number of meaningful relationships, which is the preferred approach to an organizational online presence?

Two noteworthy contributions:

In his book Trust Agents, Chris Brogan argues against mechanizing your online presence and instead giving back with personal gestures in order to create “cafe shaped experiences.

Whitney Hoffman wrote an insightful post about Dunbar’s number that mentions two relevant points: it is hard to classify the degree of  friendship online, and the more connected a site becomes the less intimate the relationship becomes. Given that organizations want a large online following – and we want all of those fans to work for our organization enthusiastically (or at least give/act/volunteer/contribute) – the challenge seems to be scaling intimately.

So here are my questions for you:

  • If organizational fans can only create a finite number of real relationships online, according to Dunbar’s number, does this change how we would approach creating an organizational presence on a social network?
  • Can a fan have a stable, meaningful relationship with an organization?
  • Do you want to be the organization that creates a community of fans and/or the organization that has a meaningful/personal relationship with its fans?
  • Should it be an organizational goal to create a corporate presence that becomes part of someone’s inner circle of relationships – within the sacred 150 Dunbar’s number?
  • How can an organization scale up its number of followers while still trying to be within each fan’s “inner Dunbar number?”

I look forward to your input and thoughts!



Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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