In an online world and with a digital rolodex, it’s easy to believe we can manage any number of relationships in our social life, work life, and public life. Want to add a friend? Just click the button and you’re connected. You’ll get updates about their thoughts and life through their feed — new baby, new book, vacation plans. They’ll get updates on you. But while the ability of our technology to store and scan relationships is growing more diverse and robust, our cognitive skills are still pretty much Medieval.
It turns out that while our information systems can track unlimited people, our brains can only manage a more finite number of stable social relationships. How many? Somewhere between 100 and 230, according to anthropologist/psychologist Robin Dunbar. Dunbar’s Number, nudged to popular fame by Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, defines the level of social complexity our brains can juggle, based on Dunbar’s analysis of groups, communities, and tribes over many centuries. Dunbar discovered:
150 as the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village; 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; 200 as the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline’s sub-specialization; 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the 16th century; and notions of appropriate company size.
More recent analysis of social networking patterns on Twitter and other social media reinforce the Dunbar range. Even as users have thousands of ‘friends’ online, they’re actually only actively engaged in an on-going way with about 100 to 200 of them.
So, what does this mean for an arts and cultural manager? Well, if you can really only manage about 150 social relationships as an individual, it might be good to consider which 150 you care most about. I have colleagues who keep a formal list of their top-100 professional relationships, to ensure they’re nurturing and feeding those relationships in consistent ways (and yes, please put your family on that list). It also suggests that any organization with more than 150 constituents should distribute the management of those relationships across board, staff, and volunteers. Systems can’t make up for the real work of sustaining important relationships.
Finally, Dunbar’s Number suggests that we should be mindful of our constituents’ capacity to manage social relationships, and we should help them keep us in their loop, but also help them succeed in managing their own loop. As all of our social networks grow global and spread thin, it will require even more focus and energy to ensure our 150 closest associates get the attention they deserve.