It was January 2011. I logged into my Facebook account, something I did with troubling frequency, and noticed with excitement that a woman I considered to be a good friend, but with whom I’d recently had a potentially fatal falling out, had accepted my friend request. My mind raced with recollections of us chatting for hours over cups of Tim Horton’s tea. I savoured what I anticipated to be a slow but rewarding online rekindling of our friendship. But three days later, my daily Facebook login showed she’d “unfriended” me. Just like that. It happened in an instant and we’ve never spoken again.
Throughout this digital literacy series I’ve explored the relationship between digital media and human nature. In many ways, social media is a technological extension of our innate need for socialization. But in this role, digital media is also changing how we humans relate with one another. Before Facebook, my friend might have stopped calling me, neglected to return my calls and just slowly phased me out of her life. Facebook plastered her rejection across my computer screen and because she had a private profile, I couldn’t contact her to change her mind. You know what they say, if it’s on the Internet – it’s forever.
You have 2,000 Facebook friends – but are they really your friends?
Facebook makes connecting with people easier than ever. With the click of a button, Facebook places everyone from your high school gym teacher to your fourth cousin’s stepson in your friends list. You can be Facebook friends with everyone you’ve ever met, if you want to (and they accept your friend request, of course). But how meaningful are these friendships? Is it even possible to have genuine relationships with hundreds or thousands of people? Dunbar’s number suggests it’s not.
This number, commonly set at 150, is the “cognitive limit to the number of people with whom an individual can maintain stable social relationships”. Dunbar, a British anthropologist, arrived at this number by studying social groups of primates and humans. His observations led him to believe that a group of 150 people is the optimum number for a cohesive community.
Facebook and other social networking sites seem to be pushing against the findings of science. But when you look beyond the numbers, are they really?
A recent infographic by schools.com on whether or not social media is making us socially awkward, notes that:
Despite the ease of connecting online, only 50% of Facebook users have 100 or more “friends”.
In the context of Dunbar’s number, this statistic suggests that at least half of those on Facebook may actually be interacting with genuine “friends”.
In March of this year, Rick Lax put his more than 2,000 Facebook friends to the Dunbar test in an article for Wired.com, with the headline, “Dunbar’s Number Kicked my Ass in Facebook Friends Experiment”. He challenged himself to disprove Dunbar by having meaningful interactions with every one of his 2,000 Facebook friends through individual personal letters. As the headline suggests, he failed the challenge – and his experiment actually proved Dunbar’s number and taught him a few things about relationships:
In trying to disprove Dunbar’s number, I actually proved it. I proved that even if you’re aware of Dunbar’s number, and even if you set aside a chunk of your life specifically to broaden your social capital, you can only maintain so many friendships. And “so many” is fewer than 200.
Writing my Facebook “friends” had taken over my time. I was breaking plans with real friends to send meaningless messages to strangers. Some of the strangers didn’t respond, and many of those who did respond only confirmed Dunbar’s theory.
I highly recommend reading the full article, as Lax’s personal letter writing campaign failure proved quite hilarious in the process.
All this offers an interesting perspective on my aforementioned “unfriending” tragedy. While it may be debatable whether or not Facebook friends are genuine, it seems that the act of “friending” holds enough authority that people aren’t willing to fake it for offline foes.