Friday, April 17, 2015

What is a reasonable number of contacts in your social network?

Photo credit  Noneotuho CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons  

This post is based on a keynote I presented at the 10th annual RiiM conference in Paris last week.

Why should you care?
The above question actually implies the search of the right balance between the quantity of contacts and the quality of relations. In the age of Social Selling, imbalances can lead to wasted efforts and mitigated results.

A look into statistics
The average number of contacts maintained by a user of LinkedIn was recently reported as being 60 contacts. For Facebook, I found an average of 350 contacts. The median values are in both cases significantly higher indicating that the distribution curves are skewed and averages are not very conclusive. I therefore reverted to what I have learned as an engineer. An engineer can only create successful constructions if he/she respects the limits of the material used for the construction. This leads though to the question what is the material of a social network? It is not servers, software applications, PC’s, tablets, smart phones nor bandwidth. A social network is first and foremost created among humans.  So who could know about whether humans have limits regarding the size of the social network they can handle? Anthropology and Neuroscience seemed to me possible sources to search for an answer.

The anthropological view
Anthropologists study social networks not only since we have electronic social networks. It did not take me long to stumble over the Dunbar number which says that humans can manage at one given time a social network consisting of about 150 members.
Robin Dunbar a, British evolutionary psychologist found this number through two totally different studies. First, he found that for primates (monkeys and apes) there is a correlation between the relative size of the neocortex compared to the rest of the brain and the size of the social network the different species can maintain. Extrapolating this curve to the human race, he concluded that humans can maintain social networks of about 150 members.

How can the size of the social network of primates be measured? For the monkeys and apes it is the number of grooming relations and individual animal maintains. This metric obviously cannot be applied to humans.

To verify the extrapolated number, Dunbar observed how humans send Christmas cards (before the electronic media time). Maintaining a relation through sending Christmas cards requires a certain effort. The postal addresses of the targets must be kept up to date, cards and stamps have to be bought and the cards need being written and then taken to a post box. This effort is taken as a substitute of the grooming efforts primates invest in maintaining their social network.  Dunbar found that an individual human sends out Christmas card so that about 150 people can be reached.

Dunbar also offers a simple rule thumb how to determine the size of someone’s social network. “150 is the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

Preliminary conclusions
Compared with the size of physical social networks, many people maintain oversized electronic “social networks”.  This raises the interesting question whether electronic platforms allow us to overcome the natural limits imposed for the size of physical social networks? As we will see later, this cannot be totally excluded but we certainly do not have enough scientific evidence to answer with a firm yes.

I suspect that the relations listed on those electronic platforms do not have the quality level requested to be qualified as social network connection in the traditional sense.  The number of people we know is evidently larger than the number of relations of social network quality level we maintain. Those platforms are thus more used as store for our address lists or a 24/7 asynchronous networking event or distance independent chat at the virtual “coffee corner”.  They can though also contain at least a part of our social networks.

Why does this matter?
In the age of Social Selling, there is a danger that sellers might unconsciously try to mimic physical social network behavior to a much larger number of individuals in electronic “social networks”. In our data driven world the number of connections could also become a simple numbers game. Both these effects result in distraction and wasted efforts.

Electronic tools certainly improve efficiency but only their intelligent use provides effectiveness. The effort to arrive at effective Social Selling might be underestimated and thus lead to unsatisfactory results. The reach of messages disseminated through “social networks” might also be overestimated. Deliberately following someone on an electronic “social network” takes some effort.

Sales Management needs thus to coach sellers to make productive use of these tools.  Thereby it  is less the total number of contacts in their respective electronic “social network” than the number of relations where a high intensity is maintained that matters and can negatively impact performance.

I will present what I found from a neuroscience point of view in a next blog post.

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