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Group sizes (from support cliques to tribes)

The science of in-groups in a wired world.

Humans tend to organise themselves in stable group sizes.

Most of you know Dunbar’s Number. It’s the idea that each and everyone of us has a limited social bandwidth.

From Wikipedia:

“Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. […] No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.”

However, there are other group sizes apart from Dunbar’s number. These stable group sizes range from support cliques (3-5 people) all the way through to tribes (1,000-2,000) people.

Group sizes in social media

There seems to be some order in the complex chaos of human relationships:

Support clique (3-5 people)
Sympathy group (12-20 people)
Band (30-50 people)
Clan (150 people)
Megaband (500 people)
Tribe (1,000-2,000 people)

It’s basically the science of in-groups in a wired world.

As we entered industrial society, physical group sizes decreased. A theoretical assumption is therefore that the digital landscape has enabled us to reclaim some of these group sizes.

One such effect is that the internet allows us to find many different types of tribes and many different types of people to “include” in our groups.

What used to be dictated by physical proximity is now completely free of such restrictions.

However, the distribution tends to be very uneven: Some people (“influencers”) tend to be part of a great many people’s groups and this is, of course, a one-sided relationship.

The counter-balance here is that we, the audience, can make ourselves part of many different types of groups depending on our identities and roles.

Identities and roles in a networked world

Today, we live in a networked world of social media platforms where you can “know” individuals who you haven’t physically met or spoken to in decades, while still knowing what they had for breakfast, the dynamics of groups are put to the test.

Moreover, I would say I do know 150 people that I’ve spent time with over the years.

But I also know 150 colleagues that I’ve had. I would also say I know 150 people from the public relations industry, for sure. And I know at least 150 social media naturals, and so on.

How does this scale social media marketing?

I appreciate this model by Viil Lid, PhD candidate in Communication & Information Sciences at University of Hawaii:

How to scale social media marketing.
The Interest Group Model: How we as individual shift between roles and communities.

When I’m asked what makes the “social media revolution” so special, I always say that never before in human history have we seen human groups forming at such speeds, almost totally independent of demographic factors.

It’s the amplification of Dunbar’s Number at interest group level — not due to any sudden increase in our capability to sustain more than 150 relationships.

Group sizes of sustainable relationships

What makes the effects of digital spread show likeness to viral infections are the fact that there are boundary spanners, individual nodes who has existing relationships in several different types of interest networks.

For each of these networks, Liid once again shows us a model that I’ve been using on several of the seminars I’ve given:

Group Sizes | Community Management | Doctor Spin
The Social Layers Model: We are able to sustain larger networks as ties go weaker.

How many “Dunbar number interest tribes” can a single individual sustain?

If we dig deeper into this question, we must also determine the strength of the bindings between individuals. Interestingly enough, we see Dunbar’s number in action once again:

Inner core (3-5 people)
Semi-private layer (<150 people)
Superficial layer (>150 people)

How social media scales in a networked world

To build trust is a journey from the periphery to the center. You start any relationship, whether to an individual or a brand, by being a stranger.

Not every stranger becomes a friend and the deeper the relationship, the bigger the gravitational effort is required.

If you’re creating a campaign, it’s important to cater to the inner circles for sure, but don’t forget the outer circles.

Social media doesn’t scale linearly, but tapping into several different and pre-existing interest groups does (see also The Engagement Pyramid).

Also, social media sharing is dependent not primarily on volume exposure, but on niches social sharing incentives (see also The Secret Sauce for Social Media Sharing).

What you expect from an individual depends primarily on their situational context and communicative behaviour (see also The Publics in Public Relations), not their demographic characteristics.

The smart digital strategist will understand this new landscape; not primarily by scaling for clicks or opting for viral content, but by understanding the fascinating dynamics of social psychology in a wired world.

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Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash.

Group sizes (from support cliques to tribes)
Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer aka Doctor Spin is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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