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Do You Know About Dunbar’s Number?

Credit: anieto2k

Credit: anieto2k

How many friends do you have on Facebook?

How many connections do you have on LinkedIn?

To find out how many friends you have on Facebook, click on your profile in the top left and it’ll say how many friends you have in gray text next to the friend tab.

For LinkedIn, go to your profile and look in the right side bar. It’s under YOUR LINKEDIN NETWORK.

How many of those people do you have a close relationship with?

Probably a small fraction of that number.

According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, you’re only capable of having 100 to 230 stable social relationships… depending on the size of your brain. It’s a cognitive thing and it’s known as Dunbar’s number.

The original definition considered a stable social relationship as one where you know who the person is and how that person relates to every other person. In my mind, I think even that definition is too broad. Think about the number of people you’d spend time with if you randomly ran into them on the street. If you saw them waiting at the train station or saw them on the bus, would you sit next to them and chat? That’s a close relationship. A “stable social relationship.”

How does this apply to blogging and business?

Easily – everyone is too focused on big numbers.

“I have a hundred thousand email subscribers.”

“I get a million visitors a month.”

At it’s peak, Bargaineering had nearly a million unique visitors a month. A freaking million.

Do you know how many “regular” commenters there were? These folks are people whose names (well, their commenting monikers like freeby50, strebkr, and cubiclegeoff) I could recite off the top of my head. These are readers who I knew would comment at least once a week, often more. We’ve exchanged emails or chatted on instant messenger. There were probably around thirty who were not personal finance bloggers.

Thirty readers I was able to build a connection with out of the half million to a million folks who visited each month. That’s the reality of Dunbar’s number.

Those connections are what matter. Not the deluge of search traffic. Not the social media metrics and the Twitter followers. It’s one reader telling their friend about this great new site they found. This is what people are talking about when they say you need a tribe of a thousand true fans. A hundred is tough but a thousand will feed you for life.

Just to add a final plot twist, if you think Dunbar’s number applies to you as the blogger, it actually doesn’t. It really applies to your readers. Your challenge isn’t to make 100-230 friendships out of your readers, it’s to for you to become one of the 100 to 230 websites they build a connection with.

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Jim

In 2005, I founded a personal finance blog (Bargaineering.com) that became successful enough that I quit my career as a software developer in the defense industry. It is my goal to share everything I learned so that you can do the same - build an online business that let's you pursue your passion.

10 responses to “Do You Know About Dunbar’s Number?”

  1. Michael says:

    Hadn’t heard of Dunbar’s number, but you can clearly see diminishing returns as your feed subscribership grows and your site ages. I think a lot of that has to do with being (at one time) the flavor of the month in someone’s web-reading world and then you fall out of favor (i.e., you get replaced in that top 100-230) but they never bother unsubscribing. So the number of subscribers continues to grow but the impact isn’t linear.

    Honestly, this probably works at higher levels, too. Given that people have limited mental bandwidth, they also replace consumption methods in their entirety. RSS used to be all the rage, but it might have been replaced (on a case-by-case basis) by e-mail or Facebook or Twitter, etc. So a lot of those “zombie” subscriptions are probably people who have stopped using a particular consumption method entirely.

    I’m sure that lots of people who use an RSS reader back in the day no longer do so, but that service likely still polls your feed and gets counted. Even if they still love your site and re-subscribe by e-mail, they’re now getting counted twice.

    • Jim says:

      I guess it depends on how you are acquiring new readers, if it’s in the same areas over and over again, I could see some diminishing returns. If you’re going into new areas, targeting new people, you’re kind of new to them all the time.

      Technology is another thing too but I don’t see something like email going away, but I could see a social network going away (we’ve seen so many already).

      And sometimes people’s interests change – I don’t real as many personal finance bloggers as I used to but there are a lot still sitting in my Feedly account. The posts just accumulate…

  2. Liz and Ryan says:

    Jim I think I would argue that the 100-230 relationships is total between the internet and real-life. We all only have so much capacity to socialize and communicate. If we are online reading and commenting on blogs and social media then we are not doing so in real life. Not only are we competing for the attention of readers vs other blogs but we are also competing for their time vs their own real life interactions and relationships. Great post as always!

  3. Mike Delgado says:

    Yes, it’s all about making meaningful connections with your readers and building a tribe over time. It’s awesome to get spikes in traffic when articles go viral – but what matters is those who stick around and begins engaging with you. I think you’re doing a great job of building a new community here – and I’m excited to follow your new journey.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks Mike – your words of encouragement are really appreciated. And you’re right about connections, it’s hard to make meaningful ones and I’m trying to become better at it. I became lazy with Bargaineering because it had so much search, I want to build Microblogger with relationships and not rely on the tenuous nature of search traffic.

      The best part is that even if it doesn’t “work” in terms of getting enormous, it’s never bad to make new friends, right? πŸ™‚

  4. Jim!

    Just came across your blog from Derek’s social triggers site, wanted to spread some comment love but boy was I not expecting this post.

    You really delivered the goods and made a whole lot of sense. Like Michael (commenter #1) I’d never heard of this Dunbar’s numbers concept either, but I can see how it totally makes sense.

    You sure you didn’t come up with this concept yourself? Sounds like something only a blogger would think of haha.

    Glad that you gave us a different perspective on stats. Most of the time the metrics really don’t matter, but I’ll just take your word for it!

    Great post Jim

    – Chris Altamirano (All-Tuhh-Murr-Aww-No)

    p.s. Bargaineering, what an awesome domain name!

    • Jim says:

      Hey Chris! Appreciate the comment love and until it says so on Wikipedia (and I guess it’s renamed Wang’s Number), Dunbar gets the credit. πŸ™‚

  5. Cool spin at the end there. I hadn’t heard of dunbar’s number before either. I do notice that there are about 5-6 bloggers who consistently stop by my site to leave comments. I also notice that I routinely hit up 6-7 sites just about every day to see what’s going on. The challenge is to become one of these 100-230 for the other commentors as you suggest. If you’re authentic and it shows through with your writing, you’ll eventually click with readers that share or are entertained with your point of view πŸ™‚

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