You may have heard of, and I’ve mentioned before, the Dunbar number (which reflects the limit of the number of people with which you can maintain social relationships). You can supposedly cope with around 150 people, but this seem doesn’t to tally with our online experiences. It seem that we can hold many more relationships, but I’m not sure. I think that the Dunbar number is still a valid theory.
Here’s a simplified view of traditional network, from the point of view of the red dot:
From your point of view you’re surrounded by your group (they have different an overlapping groups themselves). In offline society the theory holds well, you have relationships with people and they reciprocate (you may care more, or invest more in the relationship — you’re closer or further from the centre of their circle than they are in yours — but you’re both in each other’s group). This extends well onto social networking sites where “friendship” is a reciprocal arrangement:
Conversely as far as your expectations may go the online grouping is likely to be the smaller one, there are people you know who you don’t connect with offline. Trying to represent this here is the solid blue (both on and offline contacts), with whom your communication is obviously most connected.
Online however we see groups forming where the isn’t reciprocal “friendship”. Within a Twitter network you can have people within your group that don’t have a group containing you — and this can have within it people that you connect with offline only that follow your online activities.
But — and here’s the main way that online communication is changing grouping and networks online — you can exist simultaneously in a great number of these groupings. Moving within them, paying more or less attention as your mood or activities require.
These groups overlap, some almost completely, some not much, all are flexible and have flow to and from at any one point. Groups can quickly appear, disappear,and change size and composition rapidly.
You still may only be able to maintain a Dunbar number of relationships, but the free flow allows you to “place relationships on hold” (not breaking the ties, just not using them for a time)— vastly expanding the number of connections, while not weakening any one individually.