Back in the 1990's, a University of Oxford anthropologist named Robin Dunbar came up with a very important number. In his field of research, there arose the theory that primates have larger brains because they live in socially complex societies. More specifically, the size of the frontal lobe of the brain may predict the range of meaningful social connections possible. Dunbar came up with a number for humans. It became known as Dunbar's Number. It was 150.
After much research, Dunbar theorized that the number of casual friends we humans can maintain is 150--that's the median range. 200 is at the high end and 100 the low end. Interestingly, that number corresponded with primal hunter-gather societies, with the size of a company in the Roman Empire, and with various other identifiable groups across time and cultures. The number seems to hold true in how we actually order our lives. I find it interesting that so many congregations, in terms of active participants (as opposed to those who identify as members) hovers around 150.
The number breaks down into sub groups. 50 tends to be around the number of friends we feel particularly close to--those with whom we have enough affinity to invite them to dinner. 15 is the number of folks we feel sympathy, with whom we would treat more like confidants. 5 is the number of those we look to for close, intimate support. We can be acquainted with 500 people and have distant connections with as many as 1,500 (simply name/face recognition). But 150 (or thereabout) is the range of meaningful connection.
What happens when we have technologies that enable us to spend more time and attention than was ever before possible into maintaining more direct, sustained ties to more people? How does our growing investment of time and attention in weak ties impact our capacity to strengthen and experience the benefits of strong ties? Do our connections become broader AND thinner?