How many people do have in your Rolodex? Actually, do you even have a Rolodex or is the contact list on your phone your go-to list? How many friends on Facebook? How many LinkedIn connections? How many Twitter followers? How many folks do you know from the golf club or the gym or the playground where you take your kids who don’t fall into any of the above categories?
For me, the answer is a lot, as in thousands, and I don’t even consider myself to be as socially connected as many folks I know. I also do have a Rolodex – actually four of them – that’s filled with business cards of people who, for the most part are not in the other databases. Obviously, I am not trying to maintain on-going social relationships with each and every one of them. That’s where my buddy Dunbar comes in.
Dunbar’s number is an estimation of the number of people with whom one can maintain a stable social relationship. This theorem was developed way back in the digital dark age of 1992, before interacting with hundreds of your high school friends, and chatting to another hundred college buddies was something you did every five or ten years, not daily. Dunbar set the number around 150. Other studies have set comparable numbers at 231 and 290, a fraction of what any college kid has as Facebook friends alone.
Since this is a business blog, I’ll throw out the obvious question. If we’re trying to engage our customers in conversation as we would friends, are we limited to the Dunbar number with respect to having those sorts of relationships? Are we kidding ourselves if we believe that an individual will use one of their 150 or even 300 relationship slots for a business entity instead of a cousin? Or maybe there needs to be another study on how businesses fit into the social ecosystem.
I think Dunbar was right. When I think about it, the folks to whom I’m truly connected is a small fraction of those connections I have. I know a network like Path is trying to create that subset by limiting your connections to 150. What’s your take on that? Is there an opportunity for a business to create a 150 person VIP network?