What’s Your Open Source Dunbar Number?

amcpherson's picture

This morning my “ambient awareness” (meaning the passive awareness I have from my news feeds and contacts on Twitter and Facebook) is buzzing with Clive Thompson’s excellent article in yesterday’s New York Times. The article, “I’m so Totally, Digitally Close to You” discusses the state of our relationships in a wired world and raises the question of just how close we are to the circles of acquaintance that live within our online communities.

Thompson and others in his articles make the point that by scanning these feeds we can cultivate a type of ESP about those we follow: what they’re interested in, how they are feeling that day, what the weather is like where they live, their travel patterns. I have found Twitter to be effective in those areas, but even more so in tracking “community” reaction to news in technology. It’s an effective and more personal Zeitgeist than the Google Zeitgeist since the people I follow and “know” are generally people whose opinions I value.  I am applying my own algorithm much like Google does. If I follow them, that means their opinions should matter, so when I see their reaction to the Vista Seinfeld ads (not good) or to Chrome (good), I pay attention more than if I just read one blog post or have one or two conversations about those topics. The wisdom of crowds in real time.

But how well do I know the people I “follow” online and should I be trusting these relationships? Enter the Dunbar number:

In 1998, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that each human has a hard-wired upper limit on the number of people he or she can personally know at one time. Dunbar noticed that humans and apes both develop social bonds by engaging in some sort of grooming; apes do it by picking at and smoothing one another’s fur, and humans do it with conversation. He theorized that ape and human brains could manage only a finite number of grooming relationships: unless we spend enough time doing social grooming — chitchatting, trading gossip or, for apes, picking lice — we won’t really feel that we “know” someone well enough to call him a friend. Dunbar noticed that ape groups tended to top out at 55 members. Since human brains were proportionally bigger, Dunbar figured that our maximum number of social connections would be similarly larger: about 150 on average. Sure enough, psychological studies have confirmed that human groupings naturally tail off at around 150 people: the “Dunbar number,” as it is known. Are people who use Facebook and Twitter increasing their Dunbar number, because they can so easily keep track of so many more people?

So what’s my Dunbar number? And are my online friends displacing my “real” relationships? I follow 86 people on Twitter. (127 follow me.) On Facebook I have 90 friends (with some overlap with Twitter followings.) That’s already over the 150. See you later family. Obviously it doesn’t take much to follow someone on these online feeds. That’s what’s so great about it: it’s ambient and voluntary. I didn’t log into Twitter at all from a conference I attended last week and it was fine. Had I not called or texted to my significant other for a week, there would be a problem.

But I wonder how this affects those of us in the middle of open source communities? Because of the collaborative development model, open source people should know far more people than typical participants in non-collaborative industries. For instance, I know quite well all of our board members (20), all of our vendor members (a lot), all of our technical advisory board members plus others in the kernel and other open communities (the most). These contacts take more interaction than my online ones. Perhaps there can be a formula where you can take all your online contacts (.10), your work contacts (.25) and your friends and family (100%) to come up with your own Dunbar number. You can then weight the time and attention to give to these communities accordingly.

Regardless, I have these new tools extremely powerful. I can throw a request out on Twitter and get multiple calls to help. (Keep an eye out for an upcoming paper that proves this.) When I’m in a new town, I can find friends I hadn’t met before or restaurants to try. Everyone is really so helpful in my online circles. It’s the power of acquaintance and open communities.