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Chris Brogan and I have been watching and participating in the dynamo that is PodCamp NYC, and he recently pondered how to keep a sense of community in a large crowd? On ko chi shin – let’s look outside conferences. Remember the Dunbar number? It’s a sociology theory that says the maximum group size of any given social network in which a person can maintain stable relationships – i.e. where everyone knows your name – is about 150. Once you get beyond that, things don’t work as well, according to sociologist Robin Dunbar.

Dunbar’s surveys of village and tribe sizes also appeared to approximate this predicted value, including 150 as the estimated size of a neolithic farming village; 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; 200 as the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline’s sub-specialization; 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the 16th century; and notions of appropriate company size.

What does this mean for PodCamp NYC? Dunbar’s theories tend to suggest that people will self-reorganize around 150 connections, either dropping some, reprioritizing, or in some cases, like in communes, simply splitting off to a new commune or colony.

This is what I believe will happen at PodCamp NYC, and in virtually every large UnConference. People will simply divide up into optimal group sizes for the application at hand – it may not be Dunbar’s number, which is more of a theoretical maximum limit. I believe that people will naturally self-group, and in those groups you’ll have lots of opportunities for conversation.

What DOES need to happen is to ensure that groups are as diverse as possible – no college student group over here, no Fortune 500 executive group over there. The individual sessions, I believe, will help with that, as there will be lots of interest from all the demographics in different topics. It’s up to session speakers and ambassadors to encourage as many connections as possible, and to keep mixing things up, so that groups, while they will form, will be an enjoyable experience for all.

Above all else, if everyone keeps in mind the central ideas of PodCamp – learn, share, grow, contribute – then everyone will walk away richer for the experience. Even though the audience size will in aggregate be large, I think keeping these tenets in mind will help encourage the grassroots experience.

See you at PodCamp.

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