Does social media make us more connected?

6 degrees of separation theory

If you ever read this blog you know that I am a bit fascinated with a phenomenon known as Dunbar’s number, developed by Robin Dunbar. Again, for about the 20th time here, Dunbar’s number represents the maximum number of personal connections that one single person can hold at any given time, which is 150. That number has been tested over and over again since the 1990s and seems to hold true.

I am in the middle of finishing a graduate degree in communication as you may know. Initially I took on a project studying the use of social media in delivering health messages to Hispanic populations. This project has been continuously delayed and it opened up an opportunity to study other things while waiting on this project. I decided to return my fascination to Dunbar’s number.

My basic hypothesis is that either Dunbar’s number actually increases when all social communication is used together, or more people reach this number easier and have a wider spread that previously.

It should be important to note that Robin Dunbar himself did a studying on the same idea last year. He focused solely on facebook and finds that the 150 number still holds true. Dunbar theorizes that it has more to do with the size of our neocortex (part of your brain that manages thought) than the ability to connect with that many people.

Why does it matter how many connections we can hold? The rate at which a product or idea is adopted by a critical percentage of a population (diffusion) has been increasing steadily alongside technology and mobility. Innovations such as the telephone, radio, television and the computer/internet have caused bumps in the rate of diffusion. However products and ideas have begun diffusing almost instantly over the past couple of years while physical technology has held basically constant. I believe this is a result of increased connection among people through social networking.

As a marketer and communicator this impacts everything. I think this has huge implications on understanding the overall value of social media. I believe it leads to products and ideas diffusing (or failing) more quickly. It causes more rapid response time, revolutionary changes to marketing strategies and an increased demand for exceptional customer service as part of a marketing technique.

Dunbar’s follow up study focused just on Facebook, which is much more of a passive networking tool due to the way timelines are managed. This I believe is the reason Dunbar was not able to see any changes. If however there truly are no changes I believe people reach the 150 number more easily. This is important because it expands the overall total reach of a community or population group. This allows ideas to spread more rapidly because more people are highly connected.

I will continue to share my research as it progresses on this topic. I plan on reaching out to Dr. Dunbar at some point along the way to try for some collaborative research. Please let me know if you have any specifics or ideas that you would like to see incorporated.

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