How many people can I keep track of?
October 23, 2013 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I'm astonished by the sheer number of people with whom I interact in my life. How many of them can I realistically expect to keep track of in the years to come? Are my experiences normal? Does the rate of establishing new connections, as well as deepening existing connections, stand to slow down over time, or will it keep going at something like the present rate?

Apologies in advance for what may be kind of a weird question, but I find myself amazed and a little baffled by the sheer number of people with whom I interact. How can I keep everyone straight? Is there some sort of mental limit to this ability?

I'm 39 and have lived in the same city for about 15 years. I find that I have a LOT of people with whom I interact on a relatively frequent basis, not only in my home city, but in places across the country. I'm increasingly wondering how long I'll be able to keep everything straight in my mind, and whether my old memories will be supplanted by newer ones.

Some examples might help:

- I can still remember a lot of the people with whom I grew up, in a small city perhaps an hour away from my current location. I am in periodic touch with some of them, and my parents, who still live there, give me regular updates on people from the neighborhood or church, too.

- My family has spread across the country but we stay in touch at major holidays and, to a degree, via social media.

- I'm on my fourth job, each of which has been a sizable organization. I am on good terms with many former co-workers, but I remember details of the lives of even those with whom I don't keep in touch regularly.

- My current job is with a non-profit and I am finding lots of ties and interactions, through personal connections, to folks I knew from prior jobs.

Some specific recent examples, all from the past few weeks:

- My mother was invited to the shower for a high school friend who is pregnant. I got the whole lowdown on who attended, what's going on in all of their lives, etc.

- A friend from church died. After the memorial service I got a chance to connect with her children, who I remember from a job 10 years ago where I assisted them in a professional capacity.

- A former business contact who lives in the Midwest has an affiliation with my East Coast non-profit, and I had the chance to engage him in a new and unexpected way through my current job.

- I had lunch with two friends from my first job in town, 15 years ago - I can remember their spouses' and children's names, ages, jobs we've all had in the intervening years, who worked with us then, etc.

- I went for a run in my old neighborhood and saw the 1970s car that my old neighbor still owns. It brought back memories of him and all of the other immediate neighbors, some of whom I keep in touch with to this day.

- My cousin reached out to me on LinkedIn for a professional referral. I wound up putting him in touch with a friend from a job from over a decade ago who works in that field. Had a nice follow-up chat with that friend about his wife and children, who I remember well but haven't seen in many years.

I am reasonably outgoing and intelligent, with a good memory for people's stories and backgrounds, but I don't think I'm some sort of "connector" or extraordinarily proficient in making these connections. They just seem to have happened organically. I imagine that a lot of it is due to the prevalence of social media, my increasing ties to my city of residence (in terms of both the breadth and depth of my social ties with others), and simply being at an age where I am old enough to have a sense of history with relationships from my childhood but young enough not to be too far distant from relationships formed in the past decade or so.

What I'm really curious about is whether there is some sort of limit to this ever-expanding web of connections. Twenty-five years from now, am I going to be flashing back to an old friend of my parents, while in the next minute getting an update on, say, my kid's college roommate's children? My brain feels a little full as it is, sometimes, keeping track of everyone!

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.
posted by cheapskatebay to Human Relations (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Is there some sort of mental limit to this ability?

Dunbar's number is the rule of thumb that often gets used for active social relationships, but what you're talking about is more about social penumbras.
posted by holgate at 11:05 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships... It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.
Of course, if you relax the "stable" criterion to "sporadic", you can probably grow that a bit.
posted by pont at 11:07 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Social media has been an amazing tool for re-connecting to people who whom I've lost contact. Via Facebook, I'm reconnected to people I had zero interaction with over the past 20 years. I'm job seeking and have reconnected with people I knew in a professional capacity years ago. As you've outlined, these connections are valuable in so many ways. However, if I didn't have these tools at my disposal, there's no way I could remember the kind of details you describe. I'm quite a bit older than you, but I don't think I ever had the skill to hold all that information in my brain. I believe you are quite unique.
posted by ms_rasclark at 11:09 AM on October 23, 2013

You have an unusually good memory for these kinds of details. Most of us forget the details of most of what you described.
posted by cnc at 11:23 AM on October 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have been awful over the years at keeping in touch with people, so I'm probably an outlier on the other side. You sound like you're amazing at this, and it's something you should find ways to leverage. To that end...

I'd encourage you to build systems now to help you keep track of these people. Build a good database of them, names, where you know them from, any particular skills. Send holiday cards. Yeah, dead trees, bla bla bla, but I've found that that's a great way to build that network in a way that scales.

Trying to keep up with everyone on FaceTwitPlusSpace takes continuous attention. Getting people into the once-a-year "oh, that's what the remote acquaintances are up to" routine keeps everyone reminded of how far out the network extends, without the "oh, look, my high school friend's mom's sister just had bacon for lunch" overload.
posted by straw at 11:29 AM on October 23, 2013

Regarding your question about how people manage this, Customer Relationship Management software (google) helps far beyond the business sphere (e.g. logging progress of past students).
posted by zachxman at 11:52 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

LinkedIn for business contacts and Facebook for personal with Twitter for acquaintances/interesting people, mainly. But yeah you're insanely good at this.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:14 PM on October 23, 2013

It's completely common for successful people in relationship businesses to have thousands and thousands of people in their Rolodexes (or Outlook contacts, these days). In a typical week my assistant is scanning in 5 or 10 new business cards for me. Many of those people I will never see or speak to again, but I'll tote the contacts around for years before they'll be deleted, and with LinkedIn it's trivial to refresh the data if it goes stale.
posted by MattD at 5:58 PM on October 23, 2013

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