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How Big Should Your Network Be?

Jan 2 2014, 10:01am CST | by

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How Big Should Your Network Be?
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How Big Should Your Network Be?

There is a debate happening between software developers and scientists: How large can and should our networks be in this evolving world of social media? The answer to this question has dramatic implications for how we look at our own relationship building.

“…It’s been really hard for me to see an incongruence between your writing on authentic relationship building and how I feel about our relationship.”

My heart sank as I read these words in an email from a close, long-time friend.

I felt frustrated at myself for letting her down. I feared that there were others close to me that felt the same way. At the same time, I had never committed more time and effort to relationship building. Was I spreading myself too thin?

Over the past half year of writing on relationship building for Forbes, there is one fundamental challenge that I – and most of the people I interview – struggle with.

How do we keep in touch with an ever-growing network given our limited time and cognitive ability?

Understanding The Optimal Size Of Our Networks From The Guru

To better understand our limits, I connected with the famous British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar, creator of his namesake; Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar’s number, 150, is the suggested cognitive limit to the number of relationships we can maintain where both parties are willing to do favors for each other.

Dunbar’s discovery was in finding a very high correlation between the size of a species’ neocortex and the average social group size (see chart to right). The theory predicted 150 for humans, and this number is found throughout human communities over time.

Similar to the physical limit of how long we can hold our breath underwater; the theory posits that there is also a physical limit to the ability of our brain to maintain relations. Granted there may be variance, but it is not large.

Does Dunbar’s Number Still Apply In Today’s Connected World?

There are two camps when it comes to Dunbar’s number. The first camp is embodied by David Morin, the founder of Path, who built a whole social network predicated on the idea that you cannot have more than 150 friends. Robin Dunbar falls into this camp and even did an academic study on social media’s impact on Dunbar’s number. When I asked for his opinion, he replied:

The 150 limit applies to internet social networking sites just as it does in face-to-face life. Facebook’s own data shows that the average number of friends is 150-250 (within the range of variation in the face-to-face world). Remember that the 150 figure is just the average for the population as a whole. However, those who have more seem to have weaker friendships, suggesting that the amount of social capital is fixed and you can choose to spread it thickly or thinly.

Zvi Band, the founder of Contactually, a rapidly growing, venture-backed, relationship management tool, disagrees with both Morin and Dunbar, “We have the ability as a society to bust through Dunbar’s number. Current software can extend Dunbar’s number by at least 2-3 times.”

A New Paradigm For Keeping In Touch At Scale

To understand the power of Contactually and tools like it, we must understand the two paradigms people currently use when keeping in touch: broadcast & one-on-one.

While broadcast email makes it extremely easy to reach lots of people who want to hear from us, it is missing personalization. Personalization is what transforms information diffusion into personal relationship building. To make matters worse, email broadcast open rates have halved in size over the last decade.

On the other end of the spectrum is one-on-one outreach. Research performed by Facebook data scientists shows that one-on-one outreach is extremely effective and explains why:

Both the offering and the receiving of the intimate information increases relationship strength. Providing a partner with personal information expresses trust, encourages reciprocal self-disclosure, and engages the partner in at least some of the details of one’s daily life. Directed communication evokes norms of reciprocity, so may obligate partner to reply. The mere presence of the communication, which is relatively effortful compared to broadcast messages, also signals the importance of the relationship.

The problem with one-on-one outreach is that it’s time-consuming. As an example, John Ruhlin, founder of the Ruhlin Promotion Group and an expert at strategic gifting, pays an individual thousands of dollars to help him send out 500+ personalized, one-on-one emails per month.

In between the worlds of broadcast email and one-on-one outreach lies a new opportunity for relationship building called Scale Mail, a term coined Contactually. Scale mail provides scaled one-on-one outreach, which means high quantity and personalization.

Scale mail makes it possible to send 50 emails at a time to a segmented part of your network through your existing email software program while making it easy to personalize each email.

I dove into Contactually a few months ago with the support of Patrick Ewers, one of Silicon Valley’s top relationship management experts, who I previously interviewed on Forbes. Contactually is now something I use everyday.  While it is unrealistic for people to personalize thousands of emails, personalizing dozens or hundreds with the right software makes sense. For me, scale mail transforms the experience of sharing relevant articles with my network, making introductions to the right people, and organizing dinners.

In Zvi’s words, “For us, it’s really all about the quality of the relationships. What’s happened is that many people look at social media in the broadcasting paradigm. What we believe in is one-on-one relationships that scale. Sending out one-on-one personalized emails to 30 people could lead to 15 real conversations. Sending out a broadcast email to the same number might only result in a few reads and no replies.”

Research On The Power of Large Networks

Are we possibly at the beginning of a new frontier in relationship building where new tools can change the game?

To answer this question, I interviewed Barry Wellman,  faculty at the University of Toronto and co-author of both Networked: The New Social Operating System and the academic review paper, Is Dunbar’s Number Up?.

Wellman, who is just over 70 years old, is a rare breed; perhaps best illustrated by the fact that he has published 200+ academic articles and has also tweeted over 37,000 times. He provides a counter-perspective to Dunbar:

I think Dunbar did really important work in studying primates and then he generalized that to village like communities with other scholars and that seemed to work, but then when he tried to make it universal; that’s where it didn’t work. The evidence doesn’t show that our complex societies are limited by Dunbar’s number.

Despite increasing backlash against social media leading to ‘shallow relationships’, research shows that online relationships are much more beneficial than harmful. In fact, they lead to networks that people keep in touch with more often and that are larger, more diverse, and supportive. In the words of co-authors of Networked, Rainie and Wellman:

“…quantity goes along with quality. Not only do larger networks provide more support, but each person in a larger network is likely to be supportive. We do not know why, but we suspect that social capital breeds more social capital in a positive feedback cycle. Even weak ties can provide a sense of community.

“Those with many functional “weak ties” can find support and solve problems more adeptly than those who are deeply embedded in a small, tight social network.”

The Network Effects of Large Networks

Wellman’s  perspective is certainly enticing, especially when you consider the power of network effects in a large, diverse network.

Just like online social networks have network effects, so too do individuals. In other words, each new real relationship you add exponentially increases the value of the network. For every new person you add to your network, you increase the value of the overall network by more than one.

As we build more nurtured relationships, our reputation improves, our ability to give and receive introductions increases, and we learn faster through the people we’re surrounded by. We have networks of friends in different worlds that connect us to new, ideas, and people that we wouldn’t otherwise be connected to.

Why It’s Hard To Fully Utilize Network Effects In Personal Networks

The problem is that while Facebook can throw billions of dollars to scale, we as individuals can’t. For the networks effects to take place, we need to personally communicate and add value to our networks regularly, each of which takes time. If we don’t, our relationships rapidly decay (see right) according to research performed by Dunbar:

Once established, relationships require just as much effort to keep them alive, especially once it becomes physically difficult to meet face-to-face on a regular basis; it is the effort we put into a friendship that signals our honesty and reliability as a friend. Our research suggests that to keep an intimate friendship alive, we have to contact the person at least once every few days in a meaningful way, while to keep a good friendship active we need to contact the friend at least once every few weeks (source).

The good news is that even though our friendships may decay rapidly if they’re not kept up, research shows that the trust and goodwill of latent relationships can very quickly be brought back by reconnecting.

Small & Intimate or Large & Diverse?

In reaction to hurting my friend, I wrestled with understanding the type of network that I want to build over my life. Do I build a small, closely-knit network or one that is large and diverse?

As I researched this article, I realized I was asking myself the wrong question. I need and want both types of networks.

Each is extremely important because each serves a different function, and they’re not mutually exclusive.














Forms the fabric of our emotional lives and well-being.

Exposes us to new ideas, opportunities and people.

Main Forms of Support

  • Serving as a confidant

  • Being a sounding board

  • There for us no matter what

  • Co-experiencer of life

  • Making introductions

  • Sharing information

  • Giving professional feedback

Time To Maintain Each Relationship



It is exciting to live in a time where new tools that allow us to be more efficient instead of purely trading our time between activities.

Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too./>/>

* * *

This is the third article in a series on keeping in touch with your network. The next article in the series will go into specifics on new and powerful tools and strategies you can use to dramatically scale your relationship building. If you’d like to read it, subscribe to my Forbes column by clicking ‘follow’ on the top of this page.

* * *

Michael Simmons is the co-founder of Empact, a global entrepreneurship education organization that has held 500+ entrepreneurship events including Summits at the White House, US Chamber of Commerce, and United Nations. Connect with him on Twitter (@michaeldsimmons) and his Blog.

Special thank you to Sheena Lindahl for reading drafts of this article and Laura MacMinn for providing additional feedback.

Source: Forbes


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