The nature, and limit, of friends

My (real) friend from university, Will Reader, has done some research on Facebook friends recently, which the Guardian and others have picked up on. They are all running it as an ‘online friends aren’t real’ type story. But I think this isn’t what Will was saying. What he actually says is

"Although the numbers of friends people have on these sites can be massive, the actual number of close friends is approximately the same in the face to face real world,"

Previous research suggests that the maximum number of friends you could manage socially or cognitively was around 150, known as Dunbar’s number. What Will’s research was doing was looking at social networking sites to see if this was still valid when you moved online. The answer seems to be yes, well sort of, as it is stretched upwards a bit to nearer 200. But people will hundreds or thousands of friends (step forward Robert Scoble), don’t really know these people, and can’t really process them in the same way you do with what we conventionally call a friend. Also, you tend to have the same number of close friends (around 5), and often these are from face to face encounters.

A few things occur to me:

i) I think it would be interesting to see if the number of friends you have increases when you go online. I haven’t read the paper (not sure if there is a publication yet), but what would be useful would be to do a pre and post test. Because although the number of online friends might compare with Dunbar’s theoretical maximum, that doesn’t mean we all have 150 face to face friends to start with (I don’t, but maybe that’s me). So being in Facebook has, for me anyway, shifted some people in to the friend category, and my guess is this would be the case for a lot of people. For instance there are some fellow bloggers who I have never met, but who are my Facebook friends, and this makes me more likely to think of them as friends than previously.

ii) Does the type of friend and friendship you have differ online? My Facebook friends are more peers, work-related. My face to face friends are more social, beer-oriented.

iii) I think the reports missed the interesting point of the research. It’s not that people in Facebook aren’t your real friends, or you can’t make friends online, as both of these are untrue, but rather there are still limits about the number of people we can keep track of, and being online doesn’t alter this significantly. There is much talk of the net generation having their brains wired differently, but you don’t overthrow millenia of evolution that quickly.

iv) Being online undoubtedly increases the number of acquaintances, it’s just that the term friend has been rather hijacked by so many sites that it almost has a new meaning now.

So maybe all Facebook et al allow us to do is to get nearer that Dunbar limit, as opposed to being about 125 people short of it…


  • AJ Cann

    I feel the term friends is becoming increasingly false/untrustworthy. As you point out, our contacts fall into many different categories. Maybe “social” networking’s not so social after all.
    OTOH, if it weren’t for Facebook, how would I know you are addicted to SpongeBob Squarepants, and got stuck in the M4 traffic jam? Does knowing that make me your “friend”?

  • Martin

    You were one of the people I had in mind – being a FB friend makes you more of a friend I think, but these are obviously fuzzy categories. The overuse of the term friend points at the teen roots of some of these applications, and doesn’t always feel right, but it’s more than just ‘contacts’.

  • Will Reader

    Martin. You see that’s what REAL friends are for! Defending ones reputation and integrity in the light of misinterpretation. Actually, I think the only misinterpretations I’ve had have been in headlines, but journalists don’t write their own headlines do they?
    Of Dunbar’s 150 about 100 or so would be considered acquaintances, with the remaining 50 (on average, lots of variation) being called friends. (Within that 50 there are different levels of intimacy too, with about 5-ish being very close friends, etc.)
    My suspicion is that SNs are good for acquaintanceships and perhaps close-ish friends (perhaps allowing one to boost the total social network size way beyond the 150 average) but not so good for forming intimate friends. For a variety of reasons there is something special about face-to-face contact that is important for intimacy, trust and intimacy.
    That’s not to say that SOME people might have close friends that they’ve never met, just that they are rather few (and it is an interesting question as to whether there are any personality variables that correlate with such freely given trust — agreeableness perhaps?)

  • Martin

    Will, yes I think the main misinterpretation was in the headlines, most of the actual articles were okay. But I still think they layered a level of (mis)interpretation over it – the online friends aren’t real notion. Maybe I wouldn’t lend them money, but then maybe I wouldn’t discuss Korean horror films with my face to face friends, which is the truer test (neither of course).

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