Why Do Most Makerspaces Break Down at Between 50 to 150 Members?

A makerspace or any other community group is usually started by a small group of friends. That’s how a lot of makerspaces begin. Four to ten trusting friends determined on building a community makerspace can do some pretty amazing things. Makerspaces at this level are likely to have passionate members, and you and your friends are able to do a lot to make it happen. Founders set their founding principles, often including a flatly managed, do-cratic structure with openness and transparency as key values. Decisions are often made by consensus since everyone is strongly motivated to get along with one another to maintain their sense of belonging.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says the “magic number” for maintaining relationships within any human group is 150. From studying non-human primates, Dunbar came to believe that there’s a relationship between brain size and group size. Using neuroimaging and observation of primate grooming time, this ratio was mapped out. According to Dunbar, the size of the neocortex, the part of the brain associated with cognition and language, correlates with the size of a cohesive social group. The complexity of a social system is constrained by this ratio.

As your makerspace membership increases to 150 people, it will become more difficult for each individual to maintain familiarity, trust, and goodwill with other members. A makerspace’s spirit and camaraderie may survive as it grows to about 50 members (which Robin Dunbar associated with a maximum number of easily maintainable friendships for humans), and in some well-structured makerspaces led by a charismatic leader who is able to ensure that everyone is working towards a unified goal, this number could even reach about 150 well-acquainted members.

I think being a member of a makerspace at this point in development is fantastic because a group of people with less than 150 members has the ability to know and maintain a healthy trust of one other. It’s small enough to work things out if there are any problems. However, lots of smaller makerspaces don’t even get to 50 members. As a result, makerspace communities that fall within this range will retain some of the best features. If you have a makerspace in your area that has a membership still within this range, I recommend that you join it. Just be aware that beyond 150 people, social ties can break down. The makerspace will outgrow the state in which members remain satisfied with the community.

Once a makerspace grows beyond 150 people, the ability to keep it healthy as a single community becomes increasingly impossible. Our human capacity to maintain social relationships breaks down from our lack of time or ability to maintain healthy bonds with one another. Any commitment to social grooming (talking to each other; healthy gossip) becomes too short to keep most of our friendships (and even our acquaintanceships) going. We can lose relationships with any of our original highly motivated friends and acquaintances if we don’t make consistent and conscious efforts. Eventually, the amount of effort to maintain our relationships at our makerspace will become impossible, and the number of interpersonal connections will increase beyond the point of healthy interaction with each other.

I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count, even within a single organization.

Care to comment? What is the membership count at your makerspace? At what point did you see a decline in trust and healthy relationships within your makerspace community?

Mark Havens is the Founder and Executive Director of Dallas Maker Community (DMC), a nonprofit organized to bootstrap Dallas Makerspace, the largest all-volunteer makerspace in the United States. DMC continues reformed efforts to provide maker-focused marketing and makerspace leadership education to other maker-centric organizations throughout North Texas.

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