With social networking sites like Facebook being all the rage these days, some wonder how online networking affects real-life, face-to-face networking. How many social contacts can one person handle? Back in the 1990s, an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar proposed that the brain can only handle a limited number of social contacts, and he actually studied the number of contacts our brains can handle. He examined the social networks of apes and came up with the number 148. Usually rounded to 150, this figure is known as Dunbar's number, and it suggests that the brain's neocortex can only handle about 150 close relationships [source: Weule]. Even though the study did not look at humans, sociologists often cite Dunbar's number when talking about our social networks.
Of course, while humans and chimps are closely related, there are some social differences between them that could affect Dunbar's number. Compared to chimps, human brains have more nerve connectivity in areas responsible for social emotions, allowing us to feel emotions like sympathy, guilt and remorse. Humans have evolved socially from our last common ancestor, while chimps have pretty much stayed the same. Human males and females work together to create deeper social bonds that center around family; chimps, on the other hand, have separate male and female hierarchies [source: Wade]. So does this affect Dunbar's number? Humans have the resources to build up more social contacts than chimps, especially using today's technology.
Recent studies that look at social networking sites like Twitter raise the question of whether or not Dunbar's number applies to online relationships. Because online networking allows people to maintain relationships that they might not maintain in the real world, or overestimate the closeness of a relationship with an online friend, Dunbar's number may be skewed [source: Weule].
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