My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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the 150 limit and social upkeep

When anthropologist Robin Dunbar wrote about a 150-person cap in one’s social network, he was not referring to 150 people in one’s lifetime. He was saying that people can maintain up to 150 weak ties at any given point in time. [And that tie maintenance is directly related to gossip upkeep and brain size, just as monkey tie maintenance is directly related to grooming and brain size.]

When i have 200+ friends on a site like Friendster, i’m not a social networks anomaly. What is actually being revealed is that my articulated network goes beyond the relationships that i currently maintain. While a high percentage of my friends and associates are on Friendster, not all of them are. There are quite a few relationships that i currently maintain that are not represented there. Additionally, many of the relations represented are outdated or on hiatus, not because i don’t love or appreciate those people, but because we are not geographically colocated or our personal situations have created a situation where time to connect is limited. This doesn’t mean that i don’t love and appreciate those people, just that they’re not part of my current situation.

I say all of this because it’s another factor of why an articulated representation is not equivalent to the network that one is actually maintaining. By suggesting that those ties are valid and relevant, we’re suggesting that we can call on those, regardless of our upkeep. This is a bit problematic.

For example, last nite, i needed to call someone who i could guarantee would be online in order to ask them to look something up for me. This is not a heavy favor, but in choosing who to call, i made certain conscious choices. My cell phone represents one form of an articulated network. As i browsed through the people, i chose not to call certain people for various reasons.

I eliminated some people because i doubted they would be online. I eliminated others from the potential pool because i felt as though the favor would be too inappropriate given our relationship. (For example, i didn’t call my advisor because it would seem an odd request.) But the most cringeful reason that i failed to call a group of people who would likely be online was because i owed them a conversational call (social upkeep) and to call to ask a menial favor when i didn’t have time to do the upkeep was totally out of line.

Now, the limiting factor was, of course, that the task was menial. Had i been in a desperate situation that truly felt magnificent in nature, i would’ve called any one of the people in my cell phone. I knew them all. I loved them all. But the support i requested was contextualized because of the value and whether or not i’d been good about social upkeep.

This is important to realize in the realm of an articulated network. When people go through me to connect with other friends of mine, there can be quite a bit of social awkwardness when i failed to maintain that relationship. When i, as the bridge, have the ability to control when those connections are to be made, i have the opportunity to repair the upkeep gap before asking a favor. For example, when i get a phone call from an old colleague asking to write a recommendation, the conversation inevitably starts with a lot of social upkeep before the favor is requested. Otherwise, it would seem odd.


R.I.M Dunbar, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates,” Journal of Human Evolution (1992), vol. 20, pp. 469-493.

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10 comments to the 150 limit and social upkeep

  • Abe

    thank you danah, this is a point that’s needed articulation in the social software sphere for a while.

  • Good point, danah. There seem to be some clear tensions that arise in articulating our networks publicly with the implication that people that are visible in our network are fully accessible for any kind of request.

    Another question that’s interesting to consider is whether the public articulation of these networks is a new form of “maintenance” that signals to the people we’re connecting to that the relationship is still active in some way, perhaps at a lower threshhold.

    Maybe new forms of resource exchange are acceptable via these networks that would not be possible previously? For instance, asking whether a group of people are familiar with any academic papers relevant to a particular topic may be seen as more acceptable than asking a particular distance acquaintance for such information. Sending out this request to all of the people within a certain subset of your network may be seen as more appropriate behavior.

  • More than one hundred and fifty

    Deep within the discussion that Zephoria makes about the 200 people cap that Friendster has instituted, obviously to thwart the…

  • Or perhaps these systems boost the number of relationships we can maintain; perhaps we are no longer limited by neocortex size….I can hold only 7 plus/minus 2 items in short term memory, but fortunately I have access to paper & pen. Our ancestors used to be able to travel only relatively short distances per day and the carrying capacity of the environment given then prevalent technology meant that the total number of people one could possible access was very limited. Today I have >5b within a day’s reach from wherever.

    Perhaps your blog allows many more people to feel connected to you than you yourself maintain in personal memory…Perhaps technology is making 150 obsolete.

    -Alex-

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