The Maximum Social Network

With the rise of online social networks, it’s easy to quantify our connections. Or so you’d think. How many likes? How many followers?

But what does this really mean for human connection? How many connections can you actually have? And is maximizing that number a good goal?

How do you stay connected to them?

This last question came up many times last year. Friends and customers asked it. I pondered it myself. I noticed that when I had “random”, meaningful conversations with people, life felt better. Sometimes it led to a new client, but usually it was just an interesting conversation, and chance to strengthen the social fabric that holds us together in a way that a conversation thread on Facebook can’t do.

Naturally, I wanted to reconnect with a lot of people. But I also knew I had only so many hours in a day.

So I added some extra features to the Mimiran CRM system to not only import a batch of contacts and tag them, but also assign a conversation frequency to each tag, and have the system tell me how many calls I need to make each week to keep up certain cadence for people with a certain tag. For example, if I have 500 people tagged “Austin”, and I want to have a real conversation with them 3x per year, I need to have 30 conversations per week, on top of whatever else I’m doing. Not gonna happen.

I was also horrified to learn that I had over 2,000 connections on LinkedIn. I knew I had “500+”, as LinkedIn puts it, but in my head I thought it would be something like 589. I don’t accept random requests (despite the dozens of spammy “requests to connect” from lead generation companies) and I don’t think I even know this many people, so how did this happen. I have over 1,000 numbers in my phone. I’m pretty sure I don’t need all of them. (I don’t even know who some of them are.)

So while I definitely need to go through and take out some of these old contacts, it led me to wonder how many meaningful relationships can you maintain?

So here are some assumptions, subject to interpretation and argument:

  •  You have to talk at least once per year. (Sure, there’s your buddy from school that you see every decade and you pick up right where you left off, but I don’t know if I count that as a meaningful relationship. And if it is, why not talk more frequently?)
  • You have to talk for at least an hour per year, which could be in one long conversation, or over several shorter conversations.
  • You sleep and do other non-social things for 8 hours per day.
  • Family, friends, colleagues, and other work relationships involve recurring interactions with the same set of people. Let’s say that’s another 8 hours per day.
  • Dealing with the administrivia of life– grocery shopping, taking out the trash, etc, takes another 4 hours per day.
  • The remainder is discretionary time that you can use to be social. 4 hours per day. (Note that this is far more than most of us spend on this kind of thing.)

Based on these assumptions, the maximum social network outside of immediate family, friends, and colleagues, is 4 x 365, or 1,460 people. Let’s say 1,500 including the people you already interact with regularly.

That’s with 4 hours per day devoted to this, and maximum efficiency– only having exactly one hour of conversation with each person. That sounds mathematically optimistic and emotionally terrible.

What are you assumptions? Play around with the calculator below to see the size of your maximum social network.

“Social” hours per day:
Minimum conversation frequency (days):
Minimum conversation duration (hours):
Apply 80/20 rule? (Most of conversations will be with a subset of your network.)
Theortical Maximum Social Network:
Conversations per Week:
Unique Contacts in Network: (What percentage of your contacts’ contacts are unique, or not shared across multiple contacts?)
Total Effective Network: (Assuming your contacts have similar social habits, which is a terrible assumption but makes the math simpler.)

Update: The strength of your network is not so much the people you know directly, it’s also about the people they know. So I added a couple more fields to show you the size of the overall network, based on some very rough approximations.

Sure, this is a very, very rough calculation. It doesn’t account for going out to dinner with 4 people at once. (Although I’d also say that if you don’t have meaningful conversations with each person at dinner, it’s hard to build a relationship.) It doesn’t account for a blend of social and work time, like engaging with clients. Although you can extend the “social” hours and apply the 80/20 filter to account for some of that.

The point is not to win a Nobel Prize for accuracy. It’s to show that even under optimistic assumptions, it’s hard to maintain strong relationships. (And I can see how after our twins arrived and the amount of social hours dried up entirely, why we felt like hermits.)

You can also see, depending on how restrictive your rules are for staying connected, that you will get within Dunbar’s Number for the maximum number of connections you can have at a deep level. (Dunbar’s Number is generally quoted at 150, although people estimate it between 100 and 250.) This doesn’t mean that you can’t stay connected to more people than this, but that you can’t do it with same degree of connection.

So make sure you put in the work to stay connected to the people you care about. Who have you been putting off calling?


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