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Cognitive Phase Points in Social Network Sizes

April 25, 2009

Social networking has been a huge buzzword for the last few years.   Companies have sprung up around helping people keeping in touch with friends, family, colleagues, and potential colleagues in a semi-public, semi-permanent format.  In typical “buzzword” fashion, social networking has been mercilessly exploited and shoehorned into dozens of contrived contexts.  Whether it’s Walmart trying to set up a social network for teens… who perhaps didn’t want to associate with the Walmart aesthetic, or iYomu, which tried to cater to an older demographic… typically the slowest population to adapt to new technology, particularly new communication technology.

In addition to assuming that social networks can be applied to nearly any business endeavor, there was also the sense that a greater utilization of these networks would somehow improve some sort of social awareness, and by corollary, provide the participating users with greater ‘access’ to individuals in otherwise inaccessible or distant locations.

To a certain degree, this is true.  People can keep tabs on distant friends, families, and colleagues in very informal fashion using facebook and twitter, but there has to be limits to how many meaningful social connections an individual can maintain, at a minimum level of awareness…

The general sense seems to be that “more friends=better”, and entire careers seem to have been built on exploiting social networks for self promotion.  However, turning your personal social network into a competitive  ‘numbers game’ seems… well… wrong.  It turns out there are pretty well defined ‘averages’ for how many meaningful relationships an individual can maintain.  Basically, there are three thresholds for social connections.

  1. 5 individuals = A number influenced by our working short term memory.  This seems to be the maximum level of individuals that you can become ‘intimately familiar’ with.  You might be able to predict how this individual would respond to given situations, or finish their sentences for them.
  2. 15 individuals = The maximum number of individuals you can form a “deep trust” with.  These are individuals that you feel completely relaxed and unguarded around.
  3. 150 individuals = The maximum number of individuals you can “enumerate” and identify with in a meaningful fashion.

The 150 number is a far cry from the thousands of friends on facebook/myspace that many people seem driven to acquire.  In fact, the very act of ‘friending’ someone on facebook may have undermined the  meaning of the word ‘friend’.  Perhaps all that facebook/myspace needs is clearer semantics behind the connections its users form, but it does feel to me at times that the notion of and online ‘friend’ has become garbled… and it seems that limiting the amount of connections you can make might be a start towards making them more useful.

Designing for social networks using these real-world social/cognitive limits might lead to some different interaction arrangements.  I had thought of the following:

  • For my “select 5”, I would give them the opportunity to directly connect/interrupt me at almost any time.  Richer communication channels (video/voice) would be enabled by default.
  • For my “trusted 15”, I would grant the opportunity to directly respond on any blog postings/etc without explicit editorial permission.  I would publish personal status messages and inside jokes through a limited public interface.
  • For my “group of 150”, I would grant permission to see pictures of me and my other friends (I think face recognition technolgy would be great to automatically tag and filter photos so that I wouldn’t have to).  I would publish less personal/professional messages that they would be able to see.
  • For any individuals above that number, they would be able to see non-personally-identifiable pictures, blog posts, and professional messages.

In general, I think as social networks mature…’less’ will be/mean more.

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  1. “Self-promotion” – conscious and unconscious – has always been a primary motivation behind the use of social networks – online and offline. I think that these things tend to work themselves out, and that most people tend to get their desired level of interaction and intimacy through their connections with “friends” (reflecting, in many cases, the numbers and levels you propose).

    The Economist recently published an article on “Primates on Facebook” (

    Cameron Marlow, the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook … found that the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120 … an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.

    The Life with Alacrity blog ( has recently run an illuminating series of posts on “Community by the Numbers” that may [also] be of interest.

  2. Thanks for the links, Joe good stuff. I have a number of colleagues working on social networking application theory in office situations, so I’ll pass this on to them as well.

    I agree that self-promotion is the motivation, and that in fact, all of these “weak ties” can be extremely beneficial, at least in a professional sense:

    However, it feels like there’s really no fine grained control on facebook. Everyone’s either your friend, and can see everything, or not. It would be interesting to think about how to structure information services around our more natural sense of familiarity about people.

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