By Julie Valeur
How many friends do you have on Facebook? Maybe 50? Or more like 1000? An obsession for amassing ‘friends’ as proof of social abilities has developed among users of this social media network; but this online addiction is far from the real capacity of the human brain when it comes to friendship.
The number of Facebook friends has become a common boasting ground for some users of the social networking platform, who base their popularity and success on this one figure. However, a parallel debate argues that ‘Facebook friends’ are not friends in real life, and that having an unusually large online network was not in anyway linked to a higher amount of offline friendships.
Indeed, while you may be able to count up to 5000 friends on the social networking platform Facebook, a study conducted by Prof. Robin Dunbar found that the human brain is only capable of handling 150 people as part of their friend circle.
Oxford Professor Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist who has been studying the behavioural, cognitive and neuroendocrinological (interaction between the nervous system and the endocrine system) mechanisms that underpin social bonding in primates and humans. Dunbar recently visited Brunel University for a public lecture, in which he explained his research and findings to the room full of students and academics to shed light on why Facebook would not get them anymore friends, despite the social network’s original promises.
Dunbar’s main and most well-known findings is the “Dunbar number” which proves that humans have on average 150 friends which can be divided into 4 layers of closeness. The inner layer contains your 5 intimate friends, your closest friends and mainly the one with whom you interact with on a daily basis. The second layer comprises of your 15 close friends, they are known as the sympathy group: the ones you can confide in and that would be present in your times of need. The layers extend to the 50 close friends and the 150 casual friends, who are generally characterised as the people you would be willing to help if they asked you for a favour. Dunbar also explained that anything over 150 people is considered as acquaintances rather than friends, and it extends up to 1500 people that we can recognize on sight.
Despite those numbers, Facebook’s original mission was bold enough that it promised to “extend people’s capacity to build and maintain relationships” as Mark Zuckerberg explained in an open letter. However, in the aim to verify the impact of Facebook on friendships, Dunbar studied 3 375 Facebook users, aged between 18 and 65. Such research showed that the users had an average of 150 friends, out of which 4.1 were dependable and 13.6 expressed sympathy during tough times. Prof. Dunbar elaborated on those findings which he stated “clearly demonstrate that the offline friend circle theory, is applicable to our online interactions as well, and that despite its claims, Facebook did not find a revolutionary way to extend our friendships “quota”’.
“It is so relevant and after hearing this theory, I realised that I could easily apply this theory to my online social interactions” explained Varsha, a 20-year-old Brunel student who attended the lecture. She continued, “Facebook is useful for someone like me who has friends dispersed around the world, to keep in touch; but it does not allow for the same kind of interaction that Skype allows.”
Keeping in touch through Facebook is another topic that Dunbar tackled during the lecture: indeed “maintaining relationships” was another of the social media’s aim. However, in another research project, Dunbar established a relation between different methods of interaction and the levels of happiness linked to each of them. The findings showed that “face to face and Skype interactions were linked to a sense of co-presence and allowed for faster exchanges; which led to higher levels of happiness” as explained by Prof. Dunbar. Those results also showed that Facebook was not linked to that kind of interaction, and that while exchanges through Facebook could slow down the fading of a friendship, it alone would not be enough to maintain it.
Indeed, Dunbar continued by explaining that while family bonds are strong, despite a lack of communication or offline interaction; friendships are much more fragile relationship. He advised that, contact and activity frequency were the key respectively for women and men, to prevent friendship from dying as it help to preserve an emotional closeness.