Friendship Limit

Social networks ease the friction of maintaining relationships.  But do they really allow us to have more friends than before?  Some research says No.

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who now works at Oxford University, concluded that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop. Extrapolating from the brain sizes and social networks of apes, Dr Dunbar suggested that the size of the human brain allows stable networks of about 148. Rounded to 150, this has become famous as “the Dunbar number”.

So the classic idea is that groups can only all know each other and interact with 150 others.  That’s it.  But even that number is way to high to call a friendship network.  Consider…

Moreover, sociologists also distinguish between a person’s wider network, as described by the Dunbar number or something similar, and his social “core”. Peter Marsden, of Harvard University, found that Americans, even if they socialise a lot, tend to have only a handful of individuals with whom they “can discuss important matters”. A subsequent study found, to widespread concern, that this number is on a downward trend.

Applying that to Facebook we get these numbers.  First, the average person has 120 Facebook friends, with women having slightly more.  And how much do these average users actually interact with others…

Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six

What about those Facebookers (mostly those who were college students when it all began) who have 500 friends or more?

Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.

The take-away…

Put differently, people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,”

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