Monday, January 14, 2013

The Dunbar Number: Meaningful for Social Media? How about for Church?

Rev. Robb McCoy's (@FatPastor) recent tweet about the Dunbar Number got my attention, "The Dunbar Number is a fascinating concept, especially for social media. Church implications?"

I (of course) tweeted back with an offer to argue with English evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Unlikely to happen, especially after reading the article Robb posted: The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks.* Dunbar has much more worthy -- and famous -- challengers, some of whom also question the validity of the Dunbar Number. 

What's the Dunbar Number? Stripped way way down to basics, this refers to Dunbar's assertion that humans cannot, as a general rule, maintain more than 150 meaningful relationships. 

It's a cognitive thing, says Dunbar, tied to brain size. 

From the article: 
Researchers who’ve used different methods to measure the size of a person’s social circle have come up with numbers that don’t match Dunbar’s. One set of studies by the anthropologist Russell Bernard and the network scientist Peter Killworth found a mean social network size of 291. Another paper, published this month in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, came up with 611.
To be fair, Dunbar does write about ever-widening circles of connection that seem to -- get this, dear Trinitarians -- grow by a factor of roughly three. 

Me? I think social media has enhanced our ability to interact in a meaningful way with many more than 150 people, probably closer to the 611 number. I've seen how social media tools have helped redefine what we mean by "meaningful." For example, I've noticed how the routinized, "Hey how'ya doin'" "Fine" exchange is transformed when hundreds of people are involved. 

As for church, if the Dunbar Number is "true," then what does this say about church leadership freak outs about declining numbers of in-the-building attendance?

So is the Dunbar Number useful for more than an intellectual romp? True or not true, how is  any theory about size limits useful for digital ministry?

Let's chat about this and more on Tuesday, January 15 at 9PM ET.

* Weirdo title for the article, IMO, because Dunbar doesn't actually use social networking sites and says he's on LinkedIn "by mistake."

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