Social Networking Channel Capacity: Is There a Human Limit for Social Networking Communities?

The other day, I read a short article by Clive Thompson entitled “In Praise of Obscurity” in the February 2010 issue of Wired magazine. In the article, Thompson talks about how socializing doesn’t appear to scale. He highlights Maureen Evans, a grad student and poet, who built an active twitter following by tweeting recipes condensed down to 140 characters. Her social network grew into a very active community – a large but close knit group of twitter-ers engaged in many conversations. But then as her followers increased, she recounts that the sense of community died when her social network got up to around 13,000 followers. People just stopped talking to each other and stopped talking to her apparently.

It appears that when a social network grows too large, people start to feel estranged and that their contributions to the community are not useful anymore and so the conversation stops. In addition, when there is a large community, people tend to self-censor their remarks adding to that lost sense of community. So that is the phenomena that Thompson was referring to when he wrote that socializing doesn’t appear to scale.

The Wired magazine article reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, where he talks about the concept of Channel Capacity and then discusses the idea of Social Channel Capacity.  So let me try to touch on both these concepts.

Channel Capacity is a concept in cognitive psychology that refers to the capacity of the brain to store/recall certain information. Without getting into all the different experiments described in the Gladwell’s book, the gist is that our brain, on average, is wired to store about 6-7 categories/bits of information before most people start making mistakes in recalling. That is one of the reasons why our phone numbers in the USA are 7 digits.

Gladwell continues in his book to discuss the idea of Social Channel Capacity. The gist is that humans become less effective as a group when they reach around 150 people or more because with a group of this size, people cannot maintain emotional ties with each other. In other words, there is a limit to the amount of relationships one person can have and maintain.

And of course there are examples of this Social Channel Capacity. In combat military organizations, the hierarchy is often setup so that any functional fighting group is less than 200 people to maximize cohesion and effectiveness. The average village size of many hunter-gatherer tribes around the world is around 150. The Hutterites, a religious group, strictly maintains a population of 150 because they have found that this is the most effective number of people to function as a group. I’ve also seen some analysis of online gaming guild sizes and they tend to max out at around 150.

A modern example is found in the company, Gore Associates, who created the water-proof outdoor fabric, Gore-tex. When the number of employees reaches to about 150 people, they split it off as its own functional division. In fact, they only buy buildings that can comfortably accommodate 150 people with 150 parking spaces. And with this business practice, they are a successful multi-million high-tech company and they’ve won many “best place to work” awards.

OK. Let’s get back to the original idea of this post. I talked about the Wired magazine article and I diverged a little to talk about some concepts in the book, The Tipping Point. I talked about the human minds Channel Capacity which relates to the limit of retaining new data, and then the concept of Social Channel Capacity which relates to the size limit of functional groups.

So that led me to ask whether or not there is such a thing as Social Networking Channel Capacity – a human limit to Social Networking communities. As evidenced in the Wired article where 13,000 members seems to be a point where active conversations tend to stop. Could 13,000 be a human limit to emotional ties within communities made up of “weak interpersonal ties”?

I don’t know the answer to this question. I just thought it interesting and just wanted to pose the question and see what you all think.

Takeshi Eto
VP Marketing and Business Development

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