Ever since Facebook launched in 2004, it has been used to help people stay connected with friends and family. The average Facebook user may have have hundreds or thousands of friends on Facebook, but only a small number of those friends can be counted on during tough times — according to a study by Oxford University psychology professor Robin Dunbar. Dunbar is also known for coming up with Dunbar’s number, which theorizes that people can maintain only about 150 stable relationships.
Dunbar studied the results from 3,375 Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 65 in the U.K. These users had an average of about 150 friends, of which 4.1 were dependable and 13.6 expressed sympathy during an “emotional crisis.” You will notice that these numbers align closely with Dunbar’s number theory.
“In this study, the sizes of the two inner friendship circles did not differ from those previously identified in offline samples,” said Dunbar in his research. “Respondents who had unusually large networks did not increase the numbers of close friendships they had, but rather added more loosely defined acquaintances into their friendship circle.”
Younger users are likely to have more Facebook friends, but older users tend to have more friends in real life. That is because social media encourages “promiscuous ‘friending’ of individuals who often have very tenuous links.”
Even though social media provides significant communication opportunities, time is a constraint that limits face-to-face interactions. And the lack of face-to-face interactions makes it difficult to invest in a relationship for maintaining an essential level of “emotional intensity.” Even in online environments, focus can be very limited due to the lack of time.
In January 2011, a Facebook user named Tanja Hollander contemplated whether she was actually friends with 626 people on the social network. About a month later, she decided to visit every one of her Facebook friends in their homes as part of an idea called “Are You Really My Friend.” Hollander’s project led to her visiting people in 43 states, 5 countries and 150 towns. So far, Hollander photographed over 600 Facebook friends in their homes. Below is a TED Talk of Hollander presenting her experience in 2012:
Video: Are you really my friend?: Tanja Hollander at TEDxDirigo
Despite evidence pointing to difficulties in maintaining higher quality relationships as Facebook friend counts increase, Dunbar concluded that there is a major benefit to having many social media contacts. By increasing social circles, people are able to prevent friendships from decaying over time “in the absence of opportunities for face-to-face contact.” And face-to-face interactions are necessary to prevent friendships from sliding down network layers past the edge of the “150 layer” into the “500 layer” category, who are considered acquaintances.