Not the Dunbar Constant, but the Boyd Constant
The simplistic reading of the Dunbar Number (often called the Dunbar Constant) is that people are cognitively limited to having only 150 friends.
The more nuanced view is that we have room in our minds for only so much social knowledge about people. Social data — like who dated who in your high school class, what coalitions exist between this group of neighbors on your block, and who trusts who in this department at the office — form networks in our minds, networks that reflect the social networks we encounter in life. These networks can be filled with the social metadata that I mentioned — trust, or connections, or influence — and obviously there are limits to how much we can hold in our memories.
But in the modern world many of us know considerably more than 150 people: we just don’t very much about them compared to the way that villagers in medieval England knew their neighbors and kin. So, I know a little about thousands of people, more about a few hundred, and a whole lot about only a few dozen.
If there is a constant it’s not a fixed number of how many friends you can have, but how much social knowledge your mind can hold. Let’s call it the Boyd Constant.
Knowledge is not a dead pile of facts, but on the contrary, the outcome of a dynamic interaction with the world at large, and most importantly, with the other people in it.
Mobile social apps are not, really, about free SMS. Mobile discovery and acquisition is a mess - it’s in a ‘pre-pagerank’ phase where we lack the right tools and paths to find and discover content and services efficiently. Social apps may well be a major part of this, as I discussed in detail here. These apps have the opportunity to be a third channel in parallel to Google and Facebook.
Without mobile, it doesn’t matter how much money Facebook has. If you’re asking whether Zuckerberg paid too much for WhatsApp, you’re asking the wrong question. Zuckerberg is sending a message, here, that Facebook will never stop in its attempt to dominate mobile — that no amount of money is too much.
I was interviewed in Las Vegas when attending the recent IBM Partnerworld Leadership Conference, and this snippet regards IBM’s strategic transformation toward ‘Cloud First, Mobile First’. The tagline is a sort of Moebius impossibility, but I still think it is powerfully emotive.
I wrote about this transformation at length st GigaOM Research (see IBM’s transformation is a self-disruption the channel will have to outrun).
(No comments about wearing a striped shirt to a video interview, please.)