In February 2005, I was in the dining room of a friend’s house anxiously awaiting the last few seconds of the game clock to expire before I could celebrate my first Steelers Super Bowl. As soon as Coach Cowher lifted his arms in celebration, the fifty or so people gathered at the house party started to yell, cheer, hug and, in some instances, cry. While this didn’t surprise me much – as a faithful member of Steelers nation, I’ve shed a few tears myself – I was taken by the number of text messages I received from friends all over the country, many of whom I had barely spoken to since last time the Steelers were in the Super Bowl (1996). For about twenty minutes, my phone constantly buzzed with ‘Congrats’ messages. I was embarrassed by the number of replies that I sent that said, “Thanks! Who is this?”

This story came to mind when I happened upon a post by Seth Godin (thanks Twitter@paulfuriga), who had written about Dunbar’s number, a theoretical mental limit (150) to the number of people that can maintain a cohesive unit. Using the theory to reinforce his concept of tribes, he says the following:

Some people online are trying to flout Dunbar’s number, to become connected and actual friends with tens of thousands of people at once. And guess what? It doesn’t scale. You might be able to stretch to 200 or 400, but no, you can’t effectively engage at a tribal level with a thousand people. You get the politician’s glassy-eyed gaze or the celebrity’s empty stare. And then the nature of the relationship is changed.

As a result, he seems to suggest (but never says) that social media can’t really build a tribe because you/your company/your brand have to be pretty special to take the place of a friend/family member/colleague in someone’s life.

I thought about how this contradicted the concept of ambient awareness, a concept to which I was introduced in a New York Times Magazine article titled Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. The author, Clive Thompson, says:

But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their “weak ties” — loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist. I have noticed this effect myself. In the last few months, dozens of old work colleagues I knew from 10 years ago in Toronto have friended me on Facebook, such that I’m now suddenly reading their stray comments and updates and falling into oblique, funny conversations with them. My overall Dunbar number is thus 301: Facebook (254) + Twitter (47), double what it would be without technology. Yet only 20 are family or people I’d consider close friends. The rest are weak ties — maintained via technology.

The author covers Dunbar’s number in the paragraph before, also saying that it is absolutely a limiting factor and that, in his interviews, he found that folks who are using ambient awareness tools to maintain weak ties are still living in that 150-person limit because, as he says, “deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that.”

This is where the Steelers story comes in — you build a brand and, because of the weak tie you build with the consumer, they take the effort to engage you (in my case, tracking my number down on Facebook to send me a text message). They didn’t need to know where I went to college or where I was living or what relationship I happened to be in at the time. All they knew was that I was probably pretty excited about the win and that they’d take the time to acknowledge that fact.

When I was consulting with a collision repair company, the general manager described his marketing challenge like this — you have advertise and market yourself enough for people to be aware of you in the not-so-good event that they need your services. Otherwise, who really wants to think about auto collision repair? As long as people had enough knowledge about the shop tucked in the back of their head, he figured, they would come to him when they needed his service.

Frankly, I think Seth Godin’s invocation of Dunbar’s number (despite what he says in his post, it is not a law), is misguided with respect to social media. No, I don’t think it is easy to develop that tribe  and yes, in order to do so, you have to fill one of those Dunbar circle spots in someone’s awareness. But, I believe social media works because of Dunbar’s theory, not at the expense of it. Those weak ties are exactly what makes it a killer app. No, your company might not be able to build a tribe, but few products can survive by selling to only 150 people. If you’re more worried about establishing a tribe than building awareness, you’re likely to fail. However, if you focus on building valuable ambient awareness (Paul Furiga and his team at Twitter@wordwritepr are a great example), you’re able to position yourself when someone has to think about needing your product or service.