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Twitter Social Networks Science

Human Brain Places Limit On Twitter Friends 176

Posted by Soulskill
from the some-brains-do-it-better-than-others dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Back in early '90s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar began studying human social groups, measuring the number of people an individual can maintain regular contact with, and came up with 150 — a number that appears to be constant throughout human history — from the size of neolithic villages to military units to 20th century contact books. But in the last decade, social networking technology has had a profound influence on the way people connect, vastly increasing the ease with which we can communicate with and follow others, so it's not uncommon for tweeters to follow and be followed by thousands of others. Now Bruno Goncalves has studied the network of links created by three million Twitter users over four years. After counting tweets that are mutual and regular as signifying a significant social bond, he found that when people start tweeting, their number of friends increases to a saturation point until they become overwhelmed. Beyond that saturation point, the conversations with less important contacts start to become less frequent and the tweeters begin to concentrate on the people they have the strongest links with. So what is the saturation point? The answer is between 100 and 200, just as Dunbar predicts. 'This finding suggests that even though modern social networks help us to log all the people with whom we meet and interact,' says Goncalves, 'they are unable to overcome the biological and physical constraints that limit stable social relations (PDF).'"
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Human Brain Places Limit On Twitter Friends

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  • Makes sense (Score:5, Informative)

    by Max Romantschuk (132276) <max@romantschuk.fi> on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @02:24AM (#36293794) Homepage

    Without modifying ourselves it's improbable that any technology can change the limits our biological make-up presents.

    • Re:Makes sense (Score:5, Interesting)

      by bane2571 (1024309) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @02:32AM (#36293832)
      What's interesting is how this affects other interactions. For a modern example, imagine a World of warcraft player with an active player group of say 40 people. If the brain has a hardwired limit of 150, then that dos not leave much room for "real" social interaction.

      Such a person might not be antisocial per-se they just might have hit a stack overflow.
      • Yeah I mean after all that's only 110 people left...

        • by bane2571 (1024309)
          So subtract 50 for work, 30 for family and 20 for postman/butcher etc.

          110 is not a large number when it comes to social interaction. Losing 40 slots seems pretty limiting.
          • by c0lo (1497653)

            So subtract 50 for work, 30 for family and 20 for postman/butcher etc.

            Let me point you that, in average, the real-world interaction of "a World of warcraft player with an active player group of say 40 people" is mediated by his mum and this happens sporadically during the day - specifically only when she comes to drop, in the basement. the pizza and the energy drinks ordered over the Internet.

            So, don't worry about work, family, postman, butcher - they are already non-existing for the subject.

            • All of the WoW players I have yet met are adults: most workin professionals of some sort (tech, health, etc). So their interactions being mediated by their mum is not too common... Though by their wife/husband/SO is pretty common :)
          • Re:Makes sense (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Seumas (6865) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @03:01AM (#36293986)

            You count your postman and butcher and 50 people at work that significantly? If they count against that number, then it seems you're probably investing FAR too much in these people who are essentially on the fringe of your life.

            As for Twitter... nobody on there should count toward anything. Twiter is about whoring yourself out just like all the other social networks. It's about spreading yourself around to boost your ego (or your business). It's not about listening or having a bi-directional friendship.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              As for Twitter... nobody on there should count toward anything. Twiter is about whoring yourself out just like all the other social networks. It's about spreading yourself around to boost your ego (or your business). It's not about listening or having a bi-directional friendship.

              I don't use Twitter, but I do use Facebook for real social interaction. In fact a lot of real world events I've gone to lately (meeting friends, parties, dancing events, even some business stuff) have been initialized through Facebook. As annoying as it is "social technology" has it's merits when applied properly and used like the tool it is.

            • You count your postman and butcher and 50 people at work that significantly? If they count against that number, then it seems you're probably investing FAR too much in these people who are essentially on the fringe of your life.

              Mabye if you live in a large city, and you use walmart or whatever as your butchery. But why not make friends with your butcher and postman? Even if 1% of their clientel forms good friendships with them, it's good that *someone* does. It's always good to have at least some 'regulars', and likewise, it's good to be a 'regular' to at least someone. Someone needs to make sure that your butcher isn't suicidal, might as well be you. There are enough people around us that we can all pick about 10-20 or so,

            • You count your postman and butcher and 50 people at work that significantly? If they count against that number, then it seems you're probably investing FAR too much in these people who are essentially on the fringe of your life.

              Or, if they count against that number, they aren't on the fringe of his life.

            • by IANAAC (692242)

              As for Twitter... nobody on there should count toward anything. Twiter is about whoring yourself out just like all the other social networks. It's about spreading yourself around to boost your ego (or your business). It's not about listening or having a bi-directional friendship.

              I would be inclined to agree with you had I not actually made friends through Twitter by mutually following certain interests with others, not to mention other ways online.

              It's no different than making a friend through something like IRC. I've made and kept friends for decades through IRC and now I've done the same through Twitter, although not in decades obviously. And in both cases, we've gone on to meet and continue to meet up in real life.

      • But not all "slots" have the same size. From those 40 WoW players, you'll probably have a strong connection with a small number of them, and the rest will just be acquaintances.

        It's the same as in any group; we're usually not really friends with all our colleagues in high school, despite knowing them all.

      • by AJH16 (940784)

        That's kind of what this is talking about though. In the case of a 40+ person MMO guild, how many of the people do you actually regularly talk to outside of a group setting? They are talking about the number of people you can have regular meaningful contact with. At their peaks, I was a leader in a WoW guild with about 80 people and a leader in a Planetside Alliance with about 200, but I didn't actually have regular meaningful 1 on 1 discussions with more than 5 or 10 of them tops, in either situation.

  • Not true. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by elucido (870205) *

    In one IRC chatroom alone there could be 150+ regular chatters. Across a dozen of these there could be well over 1000.

    It's not difficult to be in contact with hundreds of different people every day for months.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Leo Sasquatch (977162)
      Technically, if you have 500 Facebook friends, then every time you update your status you are in contact with 500 people. But Dunbar's number is a measure of the fact that you are not just in contact with people, but know something about them. You'd recognise them, you'd remember their first name if you met them in the street or at work, you have some idea if they're married or single, have kids or not.

      It's also a handy indicator of the efficiency of a group. A group of people smaller than Dunbar's nu
    • Well, yeah. But this isn't trying to measure contacts, it's just using that as a metric. It's trying to measure "connectedness". The Harold Camping follower in the sandwich board at my rail station probably "interacts" with a hell of a lot of people. I wouldn't say he has a connection with them though.

    • It's not difficult to be in contact with hundreds of different people every day for months.

      There's a huge difference between people inside your MonkeySphere [cracked.com] and people inside your chat room.

  • That's like 50 times more than I could ever handle.

  • By importance? Importance is very difficult to quantify for any study because it's completely subjective.

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      Importance is very difficult to quantify for any study because it's completely subjective.

      Would you waste much time with a person if it wouldn't be important to you? (simply the number of message twittered on a topic may reveals something about the importance).

      • by elucido (870205) *

        Yes of course. These conversations aren't usually important to me. I'm sure I spend maybe 20 minutes a day on this sites or sites like this.

  • by tanveer1979 (530624) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @02:38AM (#36293862) Homepage Journal

    the monkeysphere!
    http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html [cracked.com]
    I guess, with twitter and fb, the monkeysphere is expanding, and you cannot cope with it unless the brain is modified :)

    • I've always been skeptical about this kind of argument. Let's say there's no theoretical limit at all to the number of connections a brain can keep track of, or at least none as small as 100-200 say. Would we be able to observe this theoretically huge limit from studying human history?

      Ancient history wouldn't really answer the question, since in ancient times, there was no significant opportunity to make more than 100-200 regular connections for a single person, and usually a lot less. For example, most

      • When we say 150 connection is the limit, it means 150 connections matter.
        you may have 500 facebook friends, and they all may get your status updates, and many of them may reply to you too,
        But if one of them dies, or goes away from your friends list, you will not be aware unless that person is in your "monkeysphere".

        Even if you are an agony aunt, and reply to 100 different people in a week, you forget about them immediately. How many will you remember actually?

  • "This fifinding suggests that even though modern social networks help us to log all the people with whom we meet and interact, they are unable to overcome the biological and physical constraints that limit stable social relations," say Goncalves and co.

  • by gsiarny (1831256) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @03:00AM (#36293982)
    The Dunbar hypothesis isn't a limit on group size. It argues that an individual can maintain only some 100-200 regular social contacts. Yet if, as the article suggests, a Twitter user stabilizes at a maximum of 150-200 regularly-maintained contacts, they're using up most, if not all, of their Dunbar-space on Twitter alone. So does this mean that people with 150-200 regular Twitter contacts must lose their pre-Twitter real-world regular contacts, or that their pre-Twitter contacts must become Twitter contacts? That seems a bit much to assume without evidence.

    I suppose further research will explore how the real-world-and-non-Twitter social life of the twitterati changes as they near their Dunbar limit on Twitter. Perhaps, as the article boldly suggests, "social networks [do] not change human social capabilities" (Conclusions, 7) and the Dunbar limit is indeed resistant to technological circumvention. But this article doesn't make that clear. By not examining the full social space of its subjects, the study does not actually address the possibility that Twitter has increased the number of regular contacts - of all types - that an individual can maintain.
    • by ShakaUVM (157947)

      Assuming the Dunbar limit is real, and not just hand-waving of the sort that appeals to Malcolm Gladwell, it applies to the exponential space needed to store the square of the relationships maintained, not the time spent maintaining the relationships themselves.

      In other words, it's not that its hard to remember stuff about 150 people - I interact with thousands of people at my lectures every year and remember their personalities if not their names - but rather trying to remember what Person A thinks about P

      • by elucido (870205) *

        Assuming the Dunbar limit is real, and not just hand-waving of the sort that appeals to Malcolm Gladwell, it applies to the exponential space needed to store the square of the relationships maintained, not the time spent maintaining the relationships themselves.

        In other words, it's not that its hard to remember stuff about 150 people - I interact with thousands of people at my lectures every year and remember their personalities if not their names - but rather trying to remember what Person A thinks about Person B and so forth. This is much more difficult.

        Because of that, I'm skeptical of this researcher's findings having anything to do with it. If I have 100 friends or 500, it is just as easy for me to do my updates. Reading them all also isn't terribly difficult, but there's a lot of people that post nothing interesting, and fewer worth replying to.

        Yeah but most of the time why would we care what person A thinks about person B even if they tell us?

        Unless it influences or has to do with how you think about them or they think about you, why would you remember it?

        • but most of the time why would we care what person A thinks about person B even if they tell us?

          Unless it influences or has to do with how you think about them or they think about you, why would you remember it?

          Because it does influence how they think about you. If Gnivad thinks Tilda is stuck-up, then siding with Tilda on an issue may make you look stuck-up to Gnivad.

        • by ShakaUVM (157947)

          >>Yeah but most of the time why would we care what person A thinks about person B even if they tell us?

          Because even though you know both A and B, and are friends with them, they hate each other (A cheated on B back in the day), and so you know not to invite them both to the same dinner.

          Or more importantly, those annoying group politics that every group of humans over the size of 10 inevitably develops.

          • by elucido (870205) *

            >>Yeah but most of the time why would we care what person A thinks about person B even if they tell us?

            Because even though you know both A and B, and are friends with them, they hate each other (A cheated on B back in the day), and so you know not to invite them both to the same dinner.

            Or more importantly, those annoying group politics that every group of humans over the size of 10 inevitably develops.

            You don't have to choose sides in group conflicts.

            • by ShakaUVM (157947)

              Getting lunch with A automatically puts you on the shit list with B.

              *That's* why it's so important.

              In a broader sense, you can see people tracking all of this stuff across the board, like with the endless spirals of celebrity romances and breakups.

  • human brains also couldn't deal with speeds over 75mph. human brains adapt, that is the game. under estimating this is total bull
    • Re:bu..sh.t (Score:5, Insightful)

      by captainpanic (1173915) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @04:42AM (#36294368)

      Well... Human brains indeed cannot deal with speeds over 75 mph on ancient roads... we've had to build huge nearly straight roads where you have an excellent view and where you can anticipate things half a mile ahead. If we would be going 75 mph on roads of the quality of the 1800's, we'd all be dead within a year.

      Humans adapt their surroundings a lot faster than they'll adapt their own brains.

      • Humans adapt their surroundings a lot faster than they'll adapt their own brains.

        Ha! You just failed the Turing test.

  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Tuesday May 31, 2011 @08:06AM (#36295322)
    Some time back, I worked as a retail store manager. One of the things that the company made a point of was that there were studies that indicated that on average people know 250 people well enough to impact their buying decisions. The point they made was that if somebody had a negative experience in your store, it was not just that one person whose sales you might lose as a result. Knowing how some of the other numbers they used got distorted to make whatever point they were pushing, I suspect that somewhere along the line this 150 people number got stretched to 250.
    However, having looked at the group dynamics of many organizations over my life time that is the range that fits with my experience. Organizations that are designed to be social interactions for their members tend to divide between 200 and 500, either intentionally or because of internal disputes.
  • I have 140 more spots I can fill!
  • The problem is not keeping up with people online, it's that you never really find the time to spend with them. I particularly noticed it when I started studying, I had my "old friends" and my "study friends" which were completely disjoint social circles. Friday and saturday night there was different things going on, I could either be here or there. Take a thing as a birthday party, most people have it on saturday and there's only 52-53 of them each year, with 200 friends there's likely to be 4 a week. Or ca

  • There is another site out there that I heard about (I don't use Twitter, Facebook, or any of those social sites, unless you count slashdot, which doesn't seem very social to me) that limits you to 50. I'm sure they also have some scientific reasoning for the limitation.
    It seems to me like it would make more sense to just have facebook or twitter give you the option to limit yourself to a number of your choosing. Then there would be no need for a whole other site with that limit that you now have to convinc
  • measuring the number of people an individual can maintain regular contact with, and came up with 150

    My number is more like 2-3. Maybe that's why I'm so anti-social.

  • See? This is why the first generation of pokemon was the best!

  • This is your brain on Twitter.

    Any questions?

  • Obligatory QDB quote. http://qdb.us/303821 [qdb.us]

    <Arang> fax, have you heard about the whole brain size-herd size primate theory?
    <Arang> basically, the size of primates' brains corresponds directly to the size of their social group
    <Fax> yea
    <Fax> don't humans come out to be 50ish?
    <Gral_Work> Oh, the monkeysphere?
    <Arang> the tiny little gibbons and whatever have like two friends
    <Arang> I thought it was 150
    <Fax> it's been a while since I saw that article
    <Fa

  • Read TFA, and it's like watching Fox News.
    Correlation doesn't prove anything.

    How does the size of military units (specific ones no less, it's not like all military units are the same size) have to do with maintaining stable social circles?

    How does real-world social interaction (actual social capital) compare with people you don't know and never met following you on twitter?

    You can always find numbers in the world which correlate. The number of galaxies in the universe is about the same as neurons in our bra

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