The psychological threshold for a social media group

In Group Dynamics, there is a concept called interdependency, which refers to the structural reliance on which a group depends. For example, in a factory setting, an assembly line worker cannot perform their step until the previous step is accurately completed. This is a high rate of interdependence. Conversely, a group that has no real tasks to perform but simply allows people to participate when they wish to, would not have a great deal of interdependence.

Interdependence doesn’t merely have to do with tasks. It can have a great deal to do with social identity, or how a person perceives themselves as part of or in relation to a group. If a person has no external connections outside the group, or is isolated from the core groups of their life like family, they are more likely to become dependent upon the group for their support. This is the sort of interdependence that is sought and indeed used as a control mechanism within cults.

The more interdependent the group becomes, the more a kind of connectedness must take place. The cohesion of the group depends on it. Groups in which every member has a close connection with every other member have the most cohesiveness and longevity. For example, in a family of two parents, three children, and four grandparents, this kind of cohesion can easily be achieved. It is not unreasonable to expect that one of the children can form connections to both the parents, both siblings, and all grandparents. These connections formed and maintained, the family unit is stable for the long term and interdependent on one another for support.

There is a mathematical equation that can render the total number of connections that must be made in a group, for any group to reach that familial style connectedness of all parties to all parties. It is:


Where n is the number of members in the group. So calculating this for a family of say, 10 members, one gets a total number of connections at 45.

The larger the group, the more connections must be made to achieve that kind of cohesive longevity.

However, there appears to be a very well-defined limit to how many connections a human can form and maintain, and while individual members may have lower or higher thresholds (for example someone who is socially anxious would be more likely to hit their limit earlier) it seems fairly consistent across numerous studies with both observational and empirical data. Humans do not seem to be able to maintain connectedness, interdependence, reliance, or cohesiveness past groups that are 150 members in size as described by Dunbar in 2008. For centuries, humans have organized in increments of 100-150 members, from Battalions and legions to villages, and there was never a descriptive model to explain why. Dunbar’s research points to this cognitive limit as being essentially evolved into the species.

Plugging 150 into the above equation, we can see that a group of that size would have to have over 11,000 individual connections in order to behave like a family or core group.

Once that threshold is reached, members tend to leave or opt out of activities. The group fragments into smaller groups (usually before 150) and controversies arises between these. More conflict occurs and cannot be as easily mediated. This is a kind of chain reaction that can be seen, in which people fall into the predictable roles either to maintain the group or find fault with it. Maintenance roles tend to create new norms or rules and govern disagreements and reactions to the loss of members. As mentioned in a previous entry, blocking roles begin to make an appearance also. But the question is why. Why would a conflict in a group with a high rate of interdependence produce negative behaviors rather than positive? How would those behaviors trigger collapse of the group? And my personal question—how does the construction of the platform contribute to this cascade?

For me, classical ideas of “groups” tend to ignore social media networks, even refusing to define them as groups. This may have been applicable in the 90’s or even as recently as a decade ago, but in all honesty it no longer holds true. The platforms, however, have strictures to communication and gathering that the offline world does not. Thusly, classical models of behavior have to be shifted and changed not only to discuss online groups, but also to account for their growing impact on the lives of people.

Social media programs like chat rooms allow for a great many group dynamics to play out, and often, the size of the group is a factor in that. On platforms like Discord, for example, ranking members can be given authority, special roles that can create sub groups, and even the ability to kick or block others from the group. Direct messaging ensures the ability for individual relationships to form. Rules can be voted upon or determined by the server owner. All these features make it possible for a server to be run in a variety of ways, in accordance with any Parameter selected, but none of these offset the fact that the construction of the environment is essentially primed and ready to initiate negative effects.

The interactions, both intimate and large scale, can create a sensory overload, as can the speed of communication or subjects discussed. The group can police this, members taking up maintenance roles to effectively manage it, but once it reaches that psychological threshold, rules cease to matter. Controversies that had been dealt with will be used as justification, strategic positioning occurs, members who are confused will make a snap decision as to which person is right and which wrong. People will simply immediately fall into blocking roles, all logic aside, and the group will collapse.

It is somewhat arguable as to whether or not the sub groups that may form are still technically part of the larger group. They have dynamics of their own, but much of this may be either dependent upon the original group’s method of construction or in opposition to it, both of which are directly related to the original group. There is no data on how dynamics may continue to break down within smaller groups, if at all, but if blocking roles persist into extended groups, it may be possible that the cascade continues.

Social media may present users with the chance to make connections they wouldn’t otherwise, but very little understanding exists on how they can be constructed to best be in line with positive psychology. Much data shows that if the platform allows users to organize in a large group, the standard boundaries of group dynamics and group size still play out eventually, if in modified forms. It may be that some networks allow for a far higher psychological threshold, or even a far lower. Some other aspects of a platform, like Tumblr’s anon feature, may actually lower the threshold. The ability to tag people in posts—good or bad, can immediately trigger dynamics that might otherwise result more slowly within an in-person group.

More study is needed.