The point of diminishing returns: lessons from biology

on Jan 06 in biology, hints and tips, Twitter posted by

Do you keep following more and more people on Twitter? Perhaps you hope they will follow you, thereby boosting the number of your followers.

Aside from the question of whether this is good Twittequette, you might want to consider other reasons why following as many people as possible might not be a good idea.

Check out Twitter’s public timeline. Now you are following everyone on Twitter. Refresh the page. You get a whole different slew of Twitterers. You can’t possibly keep track of all these.

The value of being able to pick and choose who you follow is to not get lost in this onslaught of random data.

When you are no longer able to keep track of all of your followers’ Tweets (not to mention their related activity, such as reTweets, blogs, etc.) you will begin to lose information. So what is the point of diminishing returns? At what point does following too many people begin to erode the quality of information you are getting from those you follow?

Perhaps biology can point us in the right direction to answering this question.

According to anthropologists, there is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships (Dunbar’s number). Beyond this number, the stability of the relationships begins to break down.

A precise value for Dunbar’s number has not been established, but estimates put it at 150. Thus, it seems that we are cognitively limited to interacting meaningfully with about 150 people at a time.

Of course, this limit depends on the extent of interaction (or number of Tweets) between individuals. The more Tweets you receive, the fewer people you can interact with meaningfully. This is the tradeoff.

The take home lesson is that if you Tweet a lot and follow others who Tweet a lot, you might want to reduce the number of people you follow. This way you can pay more attention to the Tweets you receive. Likewise, if you and those you follow Tweet infrequently, you can have follow more people with less risk of losing track.

As with so many things in life, it’s the quality not quantity of people who you follow that counts.

Wikipedia article: Dunbar’s number

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. We had an interesting discussion of this on FriendFeed:

    Comment by Coturnix — February 27, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

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