September 29, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
Twitter is a great place to find other writers.
It can be a good place to find readers, too. And to some degree that Venn diagram overlaps. As the discussion on last week’s “Blogligations” post on chain letter blog awards confirmed, we all like to be read by colleagues we respect, be recognized by them, and learn from them.
But bad social media strategy, which relies on a rigid Doctrine of Reciprocity, fails to distinguish between the two. It treats your Dunbar number as if it were a Bacon number.
Hey, you say. I’m a writer. If I enjoyed math, I never would have discovered my capacity for bad free verse in trigonometry class.
OK, that’s me. But this is important, so listen up. Especially if you are exhausting yourself on social media in the name of “building an audience.”
Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford.
He specializes in primate behavior. His studies of monkey grooming habits say you can only have 150 friends – no matter what it says on your Facebook page, or how many followers you have on Twitter. You have a bigger brain than a monkey – big enough to use language instead of nit-picking to form stable relationships – but not big enough to significantly raise that number.
This is an oversimplification, as you’ll see if you check out the video. (There’s also a longer version.) And there isn’t really just one Dunbar number. He has a great deal to say about all sorts of group sizes, and what they are for – those smaller than that personal social group of 150, like family and other close kinship groups, and larger like clans and, tribal groups.
But 150, a few more or less, is the largest group of people Dunbar believes one person can have close, stable relationships with.
And he has a pretty impressive amount of evidence to back his assertion up. Dunbar’s number has been taken very seriously in the business world, where it is seen as a key unit of efficient organizational size. The other place it has had a major influence is in social network theory. Engagement experts waffle between trying to monetize the number or break through as if it were a new sound barrier – and given the issue of noise on networks like Twitter, in a way it is. Even Seth Godin has a thing or two to say about the Dunbar number.
What is most important to remember about the Dunbar number is that relationships at this level require time and energy to develop and maintain. This is best done one-on-one, or in small group structures.
But when we speak of “building an audience for our work,” we are thinking much bigger than 150. Anyone trying to make a living as an author is going to need more readers than that. Even if you do not have to pay the bills with your writing, you probably hope to reach a larger audience than that.
Audience development is where the Bacon number comes in.
Because this is where social media experts forsake Robin Dunbar and embrace Stanley Milgram, whose small world experiment suggests there are only six degrees of separation between any two people – an idea popularized by the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which every actor in the IMdB can supposedly be linked to Kevin Bacon by six or fewer connections with other actors. An actor’s Bacon number is the number of connections it takes to get to Kevin Bacon.
So now, in addition to social network theory, we have small world theory, described simply on Changing MInds:
We all have friends and they have further friends who have friends again and so on. In fact, this multiplication effect quickly leads to a huge number of connections with people within relatively few friendship ‘hops’. If I have 25 unique friends and each of those have 25 unique friends which are not friends with any of my unique friends (or me), and repeating this for six more hops, then over six billion people will have been reached by the final hop, which (at the time of writing) just about covers everyone in the world.
Six billion. That’s some audience.
Of course this too is oversimplified – small world theory acknowledges there are “superconnectors” with many ties and others with very weak ties. And none of us really expect to reach six billion people – just those we think might need, appreciate, or enjoy our work.
And yet when social media strategists – and writers who embrace social media as a marketing tool – talk about “relationship building,” and invoke the Doctrine of Reciprocity, the Dunbar number and the Bacon number tend to get conflated.
It’s a sort of shell game, this numbers racket.
The truth is that the people we want to read our work are consumers of what we produce. And though I don’t want to get all Franz Liebkind about it – “You shut up! You are the audience! I am the author! I OUTRANK you!” – we simply don’t have the capacity to interact with readers in the same way we do in our close personal relationships.
We use social media tools to network with other writers, and think that in doing this we are also doing work that will help us reach our audience. Either we think these other writers are the “superconnectors” that will help our writing “go viral,” or we are so focused on confirming our writerly identities by being part of a cohort that we forget there’s another audience we’re supposed to be reaching. Or we exhaust ourselves in the impossible task of trying to treat every connection with the degree of care and attention we expend to maintain and deepen our close relationships.
I firmly believe you can be genuine and authentic on social media – that interactions do not have to be shallow.
And I do believe that communities form on the Internet that enhance the relationship between writer and reader. But the need for balance between creative time and interactive time is especially acute for a writer. Protect it.