Social media has fundamentally changed the way we relate to other people. As our networks grow like never before, some researchers suggest there may be a limit on how many authentic relationships a person—and, importantly, an organizer—can truly sustain.

How Many Relationships Can You Really Have?

“Dunbar’s Number” is a term coined by anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar that suggests humans max out their capability for connection at 150 individuals.

While his research was originally based on face-to-face interactions, Dunbar has maintained that online social networking carries a similar limit, and that people with social networks larger than 150 “seem to have weaker friendships.”

Other researchers have questioned whether this limit is as relevant in highly-complex societies with highly-complex tools (hello, social media), which may have changed the game of relationship-building altogether.

So the question remains: How big should an organizer’s network be? Well, it depends.

What Kind of Network Do You Want?

Relationships expert Michael Simmons classifies modern communication in two major categories:

  1. Broadcast (reaching a large and diverse network)
  2. One-on-one (reaching a small but intimate network)

The benefits of one over the other are not necessarily obvious, but their downfalls are evident to anyone who has sent a mass email: Broadcast communication reaches significantly more people with the information you want to share, but lacks the personalization needed to truly build a relationship; on the other hand, one-on-one communication is personalizable and actively builds relations, but takes significant time and energy.

In both cases, time and energy are needed not only to establish the relationship, but also to keep it up: “We need to personally communicate and add value to our networks regularly, each of which takes time,” says Simmons.

Can You Have Both?

“Large and diverse” and “small and intimate” seem like two descriptors that couldn’t possibly share the middle of a venn diagram. But because humans are social creatures with varying social needs, the two types of networks are not actually mutually exclusive. 

Simmons divides them into “bonding networks” (small, close-knit groups that require more time and effort, and who act as confidants and supports) and “opportunities networks” (large, diverse groups that require less time and effort, but who expose us to new ideas, opportunities, and people), which do sometimes overlap, according to each specific person’s needs at that point in time.

The question of how large our networks should be in the social media age really comes down to one simple and eternal question that community organizers have been wrestling with for decades: “How much time and energy are you personally willing to devote to relationship building?”

Build Your Network

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