Dunbar’s number, Pesce’s keynote, madding crowd

Warning: deep musings about the future of hyperconnected reality ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

This morning I decided to weed the garden that is the list of Twitter users I follow.

Somehow over the past year, the number of tweeters I follow had burgeoned to more than 400, and even if only half of them were active posters, there is no way I can keep tabs on so many posts by so many people. With the help of FriendOrFollow, I easily identified those Twitter users I follow but who don’t reciprocate. (Thanks for the idea, @orangejack.) Thus, I established the first criteria for elimination: If I follow you but you don’t follow me and I don’t think you offer enough for me to keep following you, then I shall unfollow. And so it was.

But in the end, I only dropped a dozen or so of the 40 or 50 folks non-reciprocating tweeters.


Why didn’t I remove more from the list? Because I worry that if I drop some of the more tuned-in tweeters, I’ll be missing out on some vital info somewhere down the line. And I just can’t bear the thought of missing out on something vital, witty or clever. I mean, I already missed out on all the election-themed “yo momma’s so fat” tweets. What if I missed out on the next big Twitter meme?

Of course, this is irrational. I can barely keep up with my Twitter stream as it is, and I miss hundreds, possibly thousands, of tweets daily. So I’m already out of the Twitter loop more often than I’m in it. There’s no way of knowing whether my life would be better if I were able to see every tweet that comes my way, but I have my doubts.

This makes me wonder how people who follow thousands of others on Twitter actually manage. More important, why do they follow so many? Is it merely an amplification of my own desire to stay connected? Are they even more needy than I?

Then there’s the RSS feeds. I’m struggling with information overload there, with thousands of unread blog and news posts lingering in my Google Reader. But I know I’m in good company. @timbednar of Turtle Interactive recently vowed to sort through his RSS feeds, but failed.

I’m in the same boat, Tim. Even worse, I added another must-have feed this morning.

!FAIL! again.

Karine Joly is also battling infoglut. A few weeks ago, she introduced the Catch-Up Date With Karine feature. But even a blogger as prolific and connected as Karine is struggling to catch up with her own catch-up feature.

What is to become of us informavores?

The informavore’s dilemma

Mark Pesce* offers a disturbing but probably accurate portrayal. In his post This, That and The Other, the text of a keynote he gave somewhere, he very nicely addresses the informavore’s dilemma.


The following summary of his post doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Pesce has to say, so please, take the 20 minutes or so it takes to absorb his original post. If you’re interested in where all of this internetworked information-sharing is heading, it will be worth your while.

As I see it, Pesce’s post boils down to three things:

  1. This: We’re moving beyond community to mobs. Pesce points out that the law of Dunbar’s number, “defines the crucial threshold between a community and a mob,” maintains that the number of social connections we humans can manage is only about 150. What does this mean, then, when I am trying to manage relationships with some 400 Twitter users? Or what about Pesce and “the sheer insanity of 1200 so-called-‘friends’ whose tweets now scroll by so quickly that I can’t focus on any one saying any thing because this motion blur is such that by the time I think to answer in reply, the tweet in question has scrolled off the end of the world”? “This,” he says, “is ludicrous, and can not continue. But this is vital and can not be forgotten. And this is the paradox of the first decade of the 21st century: what we want — what we think we need — is making us crazy.” The possible solution to this quandry? Some sort of “social contextualizer” tool that will help us make sense of all our myriad hyperconnected, hypernetworked relationships.
  2. That: our hyperconnected mobs are overrunning our institutions’ abilities to manage. “It is not that these institutions are dying, but rather, they now face worthy competitors. Democracy, as an example, works well in communities, but can fail epically when it scales to mobs. Crowdsourced knowledge requires a mob, but that knowledge, once it has been collected, can be shared within a community, to hyperempower that community. This tug-of-war between communities and crowds is setting all of our institutions, old and new, vibrating like taught [sic] strings.” As a solution, Pesce suggests anarcho-syndicalism, a utopian concept of “no hierarchy, no bosses, no secrets, no politics.” It’s a wonderful idea. There’s much about anarchy that appeals to me. But the problem with anarchists is, well, they’re anarchists. Not the best planners and organizers in the world. Which leads us to…
  3. The other: We’re lazy. We’re happy to join a Facebook group to protest something, be we don’t want to take the lead. As Pesce puts it: “I’ve come to realize a sad and disgusting little fact about all of us: We need and we need and we need. We need others to gather the news we read. We need others to provide the broadband we so greedily lap up. We need other to govern us. And god forbid we should be asked to shoulder some of the burden. We’ll fire off a thousand excuses about how we’re so time poor even the cat hasn’t been fed in a week.”

What all of this — the info-glut, the hyperconnectedness, the crowdsourcing, the ease of banding and disbanding — really, really boils down to is:

“[W]e behave like crowds when we really ought to be organizing like a community.”

This is not what we want, is it? This is not what we signed up for. Is it? Is it?

Meanwhile, the Twitter posts stream by, the RSS goes unread, and the Facebook status message goes un-updated. It’s a good thing I don’t have a cat.

* @mpesce is one of those unreciprocating Twitterers I can’t bear to part ways with. But I’m glad that’s the case. He’s got some good stuff.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

6 thoughts on “Dunbar’s number, Pesce’s keynote, madding crowd”

  1. According to this discussion on Keith Ferrazzi’s Greenlight Community (http://www.greenlightcommunity.com/forum/topic/show?id=2183286%3ATopic%3A23161) about having too much social networking, we can’t really maintain a network of more than 150-250.

    And like you, I get totally overwhelmed by the fact that my google.reader account has over 1000 unread posts. But I don’t like to think of it as failing…I know it’s there when I’m ready to read it. And if I don’t get to it, tomorrow there are still going to be hundreds of new things to NOT pay attention to ;)

  2. Kathryn – Dunbar’s number (generally 150) is at the bottom of that network range you cite. Sounds like you have a healthy attitude toward Google Reader. (BTW, I just spent the last 15 minutes jettisoning the RSS cache. It’ll be full again by this time tomorrow.)

  3. Thanks Andy for taking the time to write this post.

    As far as Twitter is concerned, I’ve chosen to follow just the folks I know (met in real life or exchanged email with more than once). With just these 34, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up, so I can’t imagine how you do it with 400.

    Now back to trying to catchup with the rest.

  4. Good topics. I don’t think Dunbar’s Number really represents what almost everyone uses it to represent. The missing factor in simple “how big can one person’s real social network be?” questions is the quality (or strength) of the ties. The number of ties is meaningless. Also, Dunbar was talking about apes’ grooming habits, not people’s internet use. So it needs a huge grain of salt. I wrote about it last year:


    Re: following strangers in Twitter, I remain open to following complete strangers IF they have posts I learn from and that I find relevant. The reason is that Twitter represents the “strength of weak ties” that Granovetter wrote about 35 years ago. The people we already connect with strongly/frequently don’t have as much new info/potential contacts for us as the people we rarely cross paths with.

    Ooh. Blog post topic for Alumni Futures!

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘479282204 which is not a hashcash value.

  5. Regarding Twitter, I tend to follow Andy S.’s approach and remain open to following non-acquaintances if I think they have something of value to offer. But, Karine, I can see the merits of your approach if the objective is more to strengthen existing relationships.

    Andy – Thanks for the link to your earlier post. In terms of alumni groups on Facebook, LinkedIn or other social networks, I agree with you that the power of the “weak ties” works well here. Given your posts and links to Granovetter’s work, I’m reconsidering my thoughts about Twitter connections and am feeling a bit less stressed about the numbers (also with RSS feeds, Delicious bookmarks and other sometimes overwhelming feeds).

  6. Great topic and great post. I struggle everyday with what I call the “signal to noise ratio” (Yes the idea came to me listening to Peter Gabriel’s song Signal to Noise)

    As much as I love social media and staying connected, at the end of the day there just isn’t enough time. I have a life to lead. Until we develop better filters, I need to focus my attention on those people who provide the best signal and eliminate the noise. (Clay Shirkey has a great talk on “Filter Failure”.

    I have been steadily cutting back on the number of people I follow on Twitter. I’ve been steady at about 150 people, but I can see the number dropping to below 100 soon. I just don’t have the time. My guess is that the 80/20 rule will again apply. I get 80% of the value from 20% of the people I follow.

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