Dunbar versus Bacon: Why Social Media Reciprocity is a Numbers Racket


September 29, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Twitter is a great place to find other writers.

Henry James Edith Wharton, Howard Sturgis on The Mount terrace 1904.

Henry James Edith Wharton, Howard Sturgis on The Mount Terrace 1904. Courtesy edithwharton.org

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.

From the Producers, by way of Whiteysplace.

From the Producers, by way of Austin Kleon, by way of Whiteysplace.

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.


25 thoughts on “Dunbar versus Bacon: Why Social Media Reciprocity is a Numbers Racket

  1. Natasha says:

    That balance is tough to find. At some point, I will probably chuck the part that is most difficult to maintain, which in my case is the marketing, interacting and finding an audience part. Social media interaction is exhausting.


    • You are right, Natasha It can be exhausting. And if you’re just a little obsessive-compulsive, as I am (who am I kidding – a “little” obsessive-compulsive?) you risk putting a lot of energy in trying to figure out “the system,” collapse in exhaustion, and then chuck it all because it seems overwhelming. But before you chuck social media entirely, I’d recommend figuring out what types of interactions work best, and ways to pursue those and chuck the others. If it weren’t for social media, I wouldn’t know this lovely lady in Pakistan, for example, who has given me an entirely different perspective on her country, and the people in it, than I can get from listening to the news.


  2. Yep, yep, yep. The more you broaden the connection pool, the more difficult it is to establish real relationships. That’s why I no longer automatically follow-back people on Twitter. And you are so right, the need for balance between creative and interaction time is so important–finding it is not always easy. :)


    • Thanks for resonating away in my comments field, Giselle. ;-) I’ve never automatically followed people back, but I’m not entirely happy with how I manage new followers. I am especially unsure about what to do with the many many authors I follow back because I value interaction with other writers, but who seriously don’t have anything interesting to say on Twitter. They are just there to promote their books. I end up putting them in a list, but it’s certainly not a list I look to for stimulating content. I do remember favoriting a Tweet once from a guy who said “Couldn’t we all just admit we’re not going to buy each other’s books and start talking again?” Unfortunately it’s buried in a lot of promotional tweets and I’ve forgotten who that interesting person was.


      • Yes, I know exactly what you mean, Paula. I have several lists going and only regularly check a couple of them. I have also unfollowed many authors after realizing they only use Twitter to self-promote and never seem to interact with anyone.

        You know you can mute people, too, right, or turn off their retweets? The tweets will still show up if you have them in lists, but you won’t see them in your main feed page. I find it really helps to keep things more manageable. :)


      • Yes. I have sometimes thought of telling my friends who do not use #MondayBlogs or #wwwblogs to mute ME on those days. And I do sometimes worry that when #MondayBlogs becomes too fast and furious a lot of people are muting the thread, and we’re just in an echochamber, talking to ourselves. Still, it’s a pretty big and reasonably diverse echochamber.


  3. Hi Paula–
    Your posts are always an entertaining and informative read.


  4. Terry Tyler says:

    For me, social media is like the way I used to socialise when I was a bit younger. I knew stacks of people in lots of places. Some, I just knew their names and they mine. Some I waved or said the occasional ‘hi’ too – actually, I’ve just realised this needs a blog post. I shall write it later, and add a link to this one!!!


  5. Thought-provoking and informative – as always, Paula, which is why I enjoy reading your posts and admiring your photos.
    Yes, the question is blogligatious or blogalicious? Discovering and building networks with other writers is certainly a pleasure in all of the social media strategies we’re urged to participate in, but you’re right – putting the creative side must come first, and be protected – for that’s where the real joy lies.


    • Thanks, Teagan. Where photos go, I’m usually just a scavenger assembling a collage. But I enjoy the results. I suppose at some point I’ll have to figure out the Pinterest thing – especially since Leslie Annelise “pinned” my last post.


      • Pinterest is great, I’d go so far as to say fabulous! – but a little addictive/time consuming, the only thing (other than writing, or familiy) that stole me from my Twitter friends/aquantances/ for a while, I found that i had an awful lot of interactions to catch up on by the time I’d pulled myself away from pinterest – I tend to just check pinterest once a day now (knock out a few pins that catch my eye) and then head back to Twitter. :) x


      • I signed up for Pinterest in order to get access to a particular picture I wanted but couldn’t find elsewhere, but I’ve really no clear idea how to use it. I understand it is good for bloggers, especially those who use a lot of images. But right now I just don’t have time to learn the ropes – and am afraid to add one more potentially addictive form of social media. Although in truth the obsessive/addictive component is inside me. As I suppose is the case with any addiction.


  6. Ariel Bernstein says:

    Great post on putting into words what do many bloggers are no doubt feeling. I definitely learned my lesson when I got burnt out on reading and responding to every blog I could to get mine out there as well. While I did find some great blogs to follow (like yours!) I also lost a lot of productive writing time. Still trying to find a balance as I went cold turkey off Twitter & blogs for a while but realized I can keep up with some blogs & blogging if I don’t overdo it.


    • I hope you find time to blog again, Ariel. Those benevolent dictators just aren’t going to write themselves… at least not yet. I do have your “Importance of Lying About Food” post scheduled for an #ArchiveDay retweet Saturday. I can’t remember if you’ve participated or not, but there are a lot of parent bloggers on that hashtag, mostly from the UK. Using one of the post schedulers (like Hootsuite or TweetDeck) helps me out a lot in the balance department – though I’m still on the obsessive side.


  7. Lisa Reiter says:

    Just love how you’re putting words and meaning to my recent unease with blog-comment-courtship! It’s all a learning game and nice to see others coming to similar conclusions as the blogosphere matures.

    On Twitter, I always check new followers recent feeds – if they’re not interesting to me or it’s all ME and MY BOOK, I don’t follow back. Otherwise they clog a feed I can’t keep up with anyway!


    • Truth is, I almost never look at my main feed, other than to pin a tweet to the top of it, or do an initial tweet so I have a native Twitter pic. I use Klout scores to filter who goes in a list, which keeps those a little more manageable, but it’s not an ideal system by any means. What’s a little sad to me is that there were people I enjoyed on Twitter before I started blogging in earnest that I just don’t have time to check up on anymore. In truth I don’t really follow people at all on Twitter, any more than I friend them on Facebook. I follow streams of activity that allow me to connect to people on their own platforms.


  8. Judith Post says:

    I always enjoy your take on things. After reading this, I’m glad I have a small family. Not as much work:)


  9. My 2015 mantra! Protect my writing time. Great post.


  10. […] Reed Nancarrow nudges us to witness the distracting dark side of the quest for reciprocity. Because social media is so easily quantified in followers and shares, it’s all too easy to lose […]


  11. […] and to grow audience – are often at odds. The reason for this is something I have explored in an earlier post, and will look at in terms of its implications for my own hashtag practice next week. But for this […]


  12. […] have written before about Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, who has done […]


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