Facebook and other social networks may be too big to succeed

By:Jeff Stibel

How many friends do you have? Off the top of my head, I can name a few dozen people. If I think hard about it, I’m sure I could break 50. Give me some time and maybe I could even get to 100.

But on Facebook, I have more than 400 friends, despite the fact that I have made a deliberate effort to purge. On Twitter, I have exponentially more “followers” than people I have met. And on LinkedIn, I have more connections than people I’m actually connected to. Even famous people I’ve only “met” on TV are somehow ”friends.”

Some may think that the beauty of social media is that you can connect to more people than you ever could in real life. And it’s true that you can add “friends” to your heart’s content, but evidence suggests that we can only truly connect with a fraction of our social media network.

It turns out that for every aspect of brain function, there is a maximum limit. IQ has an upward bound – genius has its limits – as does long-term memory, even if it’s a photographic memory. For short-term memory, the magical number is five, plus or minus two numbers, letters, or words that we can remember at any one time.

Similarly, there is a limit to the number of real social connections we can maintain. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized that our brains can manage at most about 150 relationships, and research has largely proved this out.

This means that it’s cognitively difficult for anyone to maintain more than 150 connections. So you may think, up to 150 of my Facebook friends are meaningful, but the remaining 850 are shallow and hold little value. But it’s worse than that: those shallow connections actually interfere with your true relationships. It’s just not efficient to spend precious brain cycles engaging shallowly with many versus deeply with a few.

These limits on human brain capacity present a problem for social networks that are designed to grow. Growth creates clutter for a network, which in turn slows growth. Ironically, if everyone cut down their connections, a network would be more efficient and more valuable, enabling it to grow in other ways. For instance, with fewer connections, our social interactions online would have more meaning, translating to greater engagement. The only real chance a social network has for long-term survival is if the architects behind it take steps to help separate the wheat from the chaff.

The goal of any company is to grow and make money. But a network is a different animal: when it grows too large, it collapses. (I wrote a whole book about this, called “Breakpoint.”) It’s true in biology – ant, bee, and termite colonies only grow to a certain point, at which time they stop growing in size but become more productive. This is also what happens in our brains – from conception until we are about 5 years old our brains grow rapidly, and then our networks collapse spectacularly (we lose almost 90 percent of our neural connections), delivering increased intelligence. The same is true of technological networks. Corporations need to grow, but networks must remain concentrated to be successful. Remember MySpace, and the dozens of random friends we all had, and the music and widgets cluttering everyone’s pages? It simply grew too large and too hollow to survive.

We’ve seen the results of oversized networks for a while now, and Facebook is a prime example. It has been full of organic clutter for years, and recently we’ve discovered that there is some darker matter floating around in the muck, such as fake news, dummy accounts and exploited data.

Forget being too big to fail; many social networks are becoming too big to succeed. Without serious intervention, social networks will die just like that old quote about falling in love, going bankrupt or losing trust: slowly at first, and then all at once.