Follower counts are the currency of the social media world. The more you have, the more desirable you are. If you’re one of the lucky few to get your numbers into quadruple digits or higher, you’ll find yourself fielding IG offers to hawk everything from detox tea to polo shirts. The users with the highest number of followers are the popular kids at Instagram High. But other than this pointless superlative, what can a large “friend” count get you? Is there a point where you end up with too many people in your digital space?
If we’re to believe Dunbar’s number, the answer to that latter question is yes. Dunbar’s number suggests that we can only sustain 150 stable relationships. That’s 150 relationships total—friends, family, co-workers, romantic partners. Of course, this theory originated in the 90s before the term ‘follower ratio’ was part of the digital vernacular. Yet still, I don’t suppose technological advancement would improve our ability to connect with more people. If anything, Dunbar’s number would probably fall below 100 if it’d been proposed today.
When you think about your personal social media habits and all the algorithms that tailor your newsfeed to your tastes, it quickly becomes clear that you interact with a handful of your followers. I have around 1300 Facebook friends yet I only seem to see posts from 20 of them unless I go snooping. I started adding more people because I wanted to expand my reach. But simply upping the number doesn’t necessarily increase the engagement.
For some social media proof of this theory, just look at the account of any major IG star. Kim Kardashian, for example, has 98.3 million followers (ridiculous, I know). Two days ago, she posted a lovely family photo of her, Kanye, North, and Saint which racked up about 4.3 million likes. Now, in case you’re not great with math, that’s only 4% of her users. This is one of the most famous women in the world—one who rose to fame through social media—and even she can’t get her engagement rate in the double digits.
The trend holds true for smaller accounts. Justin Livingston (@justinliv) of Scout Sixteen is one of the most well-known men’s lifestyle bloggers in the biz. He currently boasts 233,000 followers on IG. One of his sponsored Coachella posts from over the weekend topped out at 10,600 likes. Drum roll, please…4.5% engagement rate.
What’s the point of having all these people tag along if 96% of them will never see what you post? It’s for the bragging rights, I suppose. The more popular you seem, the more reach you supposedly have. But really that number is just a number. The more people you have in your digital circle, the less engaged they become.
It’s like hosting a dinner party for 50 people. You’re only going to chat with the 4 or 5 people seated closest to you. Maybe you’ll mingle with some other folks before the first appetizer is served but after that, you’re sticking to your mid-table cluster. As human beings, we’re not designed to chat it up with 49 other people simultaneously. And we’re most certainly not meant to interact with 200,000 every time we pick up our phones.
If I was a business owner who believed influencer marketing actually worked (the jury is still out on that), I’d want Instagrammers with smaller but more engaged followings. I have a friend who has a little over 1,000 followers but easily logs 100+ likes for almost every photo. A 10% engagement rate sounds good to me. That’s more than Mrs. Kardashian West. But of course, those guys have their eyes on celebrities and the sheer number of likes. 4% of 98 million people is a lot. Yet still, they must know that most of those people will never see their weight loss pill #ad.
I wouldn’t say that we all should downsize our digital circles. For one, it’s kind of my job to promote digital content, and I need as many people in my corner as possible. But I would say an in-person cleanse is in order.
Just as the social media stats indicate, hanging on to too many people in person can also be pointless. You’re a busy person, and I seriously doubt you have time in your weekly schedule to text, FaceTime and brunch with more than 1 or 2 people. And when you do have the time, you want to fill it with people you have meaningful relationships with. Just as you dedicate your Facebook time to the same 20 people each night, you dedicate your IRL time to the same 5 people. All those others, the acquaintances and distant friends you haven’t seen in a year, tend to mean less the farther away they get. They’re harder to reach. They drop out of your real-world algorithm.
As it turns out, 5 is a good number of people to keep around. Jim Rohn, a motivational speaker I’ve never heard of, famously said that we are the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with. Not the 20 people or the 150,000 people we spend the most time with. The 5. So, why exert so much effort building a stable of dozens of friends when it’s those 5 people who will have the greatest effect anyway?
When it comes to your life, a gentle friend purge never hurt anyone. Bragging about a follower count is one thing. But no one cares that you have 500 unused numbers in your contacts. That’s just ridiculous.