We may be linked with hundreds or even thousands of people in social media, but there's an upper limit of people with whom we can maintain social relationships on a consistent basis—where we know each other and touch base regularly.
That number is 150. It's called the Dunbar number after British anthropologist Robert Dunbar. He first proposed our theoretical cognitive limit in the 1990s. Dunbar says that:
“this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.”
Our tribe may count 150 people, but the reality is our dearest friends may be a tenth that size and close friends a third. In network theory, these are our strong ties. We might still stay in touch occasionally with former colleagues or high school mates, maybe invite them to a party, one day even re-connect. But that would likely be to replace existing bonds rather than go beyond them. Technology broadens reach but doesn't change human nature—at least not yet.
Staying somewhat local with our connections might have worked in the past when careers were fairly linear and the fulfillment of our needs was closer to home. The pace at which things change has increased exponentially now.
Thanks to the availability of technology and connection, mobility is easier and less expensive. We buy and sell from anywhere, a phenomenon I call—“the Storeless Store and Saleless Sale.” Higher mobility and number of interactions in social networks requires that we stretch beyond the limits our number of relationships.
Predating Dunbar, American sociologist Mark Granovetter introduced the idea that we also have a number of connections that are not as strong. In May 1973 he observed there is strength in weak ties. His seminal paper The Strength of Weak Ties set out to demonstrate what happens beyond the connections within small, well-defined groups.
Outside those groups, weak ties exist as the relationship between groups:
A fundamental weakness of current sociological theory is that it does not relate micro-level interactions to macro-level patterns in any convincing way. Large-level statistical, as well as qualitative studies, offer a good deal of insight into such macro phenomena as social mobility, community organization, and political structure.
At micro level, a large and increasing body of data and theory offers lucid and illuminating ideas about what transpires within the confines of the small group. but how interaction in small groups aggregates to form large-scale patterns eludes us in most cases.
A micro-macro bridge helps small-scale interactions translate into to macro-scale patterns. In turn, the patterns feed back into the small groups. This mechanism is familiar ground to well-networked individuals. Granovetter uses the application at individual level to explain macro phenomena such as social mobility and political organization.
Each of the characteristics of tie strength is somewhat independent of the others but they all contribute to making the connection strong:
- Time—is the amount of time spent together, which requires greater commitments.
- Intensity—or emotional intensity and the sense of closeness are a consequence of frequency in the relationship. The more time people spend together, the closer they feel.
- Trust—is the intimacy or mutual confiding that develop from being close and spending time with one another.
- Reciprocity—within relationships of trust and frequency of contact, the amount of reciprocal services goes up.
We benefit greatly from having strong ties, but then we bump into our limit of around 150 connections. To extend beyond this network we take advantage of distant contacts—either ours, or those of our connections. These weak ties—occasional interactions prompted by context and facilitated by our existing connections—create a “bridge” for us to new opportunities.
When we know everyone and are familiar with what's happening in our immediate circle, our best option to cover new ground—for example for exploring new opportunities—is by broadening our circle. We do that by connecting with the friends of friends, which in turn establish a weak tie by shortening our distance from someone we know, to someone we did not know before (or re-engaging with someone from our past).
In a strong relationship we have invested time and established a certain frequency. In the absence of these two elements, we can borrow from the existing familiarity between our connections and their friends to create a base level of trust—we are a known entity.
To establish ourselves with the new connection we can start by engaging the rule of reciprocity. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini first described the power of doing favors and giving gifts in Influence. If someone does something for us, we're compelled to return the favor. It's what helps us maintain social norms. In communities the non contributors are considered “freeloaders.”
Taking the time to learn about our new acquaintance will helps us provide something that is meaningful, maybe even unexpected, and most compelling of all, we may be able to help with an immediate need or current circumstance.
Most of our activities require a combination of bonding and bridging. We rely on bonding in most situations when we're getting work done. Our strong ties are also our biggest influences because they're part of our environment and experience. Bridging helps us open the door to new ideas, opportunities, and ventures.