Community by the Numbers: Thresholds and Personal Circles

Christopher Allen writes a stimulating blog called Life With Alacrity — like Niel Robertson, his occasional posts are long and worth a slow, quiet read. His two most recent posts are must-reads for anyone interested in community, sociology, group / team dynamics, and personal relationships.

Community by the Numbers: Group Thresholds — He explains the optimal sizes of different groups. For example, 7 is the optimal number of people in a tight-knit "working group" — say, a small business. It's also a number of people that "feels right" at a dinner party. 13 he calls the "Judas Number" — at this threshold group behavior changes in a way that hurts the overall efforts until the size grows to a new threshold point more conducive to teamwork.

Community by the Numbers: Personal Circles — He explains the different types of relationships in our life and the maximum of each type the average person can maintain. Obviously there's variance in these numbers depending on the person.

  • Support Circle – People you turn to in moments of severe emotional or financial distress: 3-5
  • Sympathy Circle – People you turn to for sympathy and people whose death would be devastating to you: 10-15
  • Trust Circle – People you have emotional closeness to, people you would send a Christmas card to: ~150
  • Emotional Circle – People you "like" and can have a non-mutual emotional connection to (weak ties): ~300
  • Familiar Strangers – People whose faces you recognize but you know nothing about them: 1000+? (No clear studies on # of people we can recognize.)

(hat tip to Eliezer Yudkowsky for the pointer to Allen's blog.)

3 Responses to Community by the Numbers: Thresholds and Personal Circles

  1. I found Christopher Allen’s discussion of personal circles and group threshholds useful.

    I have a friend who’s been a drummer in various jazz, blues and rock bands for almost forty years. He told me that in his experience, group dynamics were better in small bands with an odd number of members.

    He said their intra-group politics were less contentious, because the odd number kept member relationships in flux, while groups with an even number would close ranks and form alliances that tended to be more permanent.

    [The wild card would be a female member, especially since she would nearly always be the lead vocalist and the audience focus. Sex complicates everything, doesn’t it?]

    I’ve even noticed similar dynamics in temporary groups like a bunch of travelers going out together for some adventure. Any alliances formed matter less if the party has a common goal, which naturally focuses group energy, and the most competent usually asserts leadership by unspoken consent, and you see the power laws come into play.

    If it’s just a lark in the park, anarchy is the political model, and ‘creative chaos’ reigns.

    This particular observation of Allen’s was especially poignant for me, because I can no longer use my gravatar at this site:

    “The other social network software companies have attempted to require “real” photos of people rather then allowing “fakesters” or avatars.”

    I guess the Six Apart gods hate me.;-)

  2. Dan Erwin says:

    Ben: Thanks for the Christopher Allen blog. He’s quite adept at popularizing ed psych and communication theory. I remember being surprised a century ago that number limitations on social groups not only had cachet, but should be taken seriously. I still have to remind teams about the potential limitations of numeric size and its relation to productivity.

  3. Hi Ben,

    Those two articles have some huge implications for developing online communities. Thanks for the find.

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