Let’s be honest; you probably only interact with a small percentage of your Facebook friends in real life.
In fact, you may not even say hi to some of your Facebook “friends” in the real world should you see them on the street or at an event (actually, you may not even recognize them in person).
It’s safe to say that over the past decade the social network we all love to hate has truly redefined the meaning of the term “friend”.
And a new study by anthropologist Robin Dunbar only pushes that definition even farther away from anything meaningful by proving that you can probably only count on a handful of your Facebook friends in a pinch. As you may recall, Dunbar was the originator of “Dunbar’s Number,” which demonstrates that people can only maintain about 150 stable relationships in the real world.
In his most recent research, Dunbar analyzed a UK study of 3,375 Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 65. On average the sample of users had 150 ‘friends’, yet reported that they could only count on 4.1 of them in the event of an “emotional crisis,” and only 13.6 to ever express sympathy. So users typically have 4 super close family-type friends and 14 close friends among their Facebook connections. Having a lot more than 150 friends or followers doesn’t change much either. Though I somewhat disagree given my personal experience, he found that heavy social media users don’t have larger offline social networks than casual users.
The figures correlate strongly with his previous offline studies. The results aren’t exactly shocking; it would be impossible to have meaningful relationships with half of your Facebook friends, even if you did nothing else with your time.
Also unsurprisingly, the younger people were found to have a larger online social media network, while the older ones had more friends in real life.
“A likely explanation for this difference probably lies in the fact that [social networks] typically encourage promiscuous ‘friending’ of individuals who often have very tenuous links [to you],” said Dunbar. It’s true. How many “friends” have you met and added on nights out or vacations, never to interact with them (either online or offline) again?
He says that the one distinct advantage to social networks is their ability to allow busy people to keep tabs on people, and to hold onto “friendships” – even if it’s by a string (meaning, the odd “like” here and there).
According to Dunbar, however, such superficial interactions alone may not be sufficient to prevent friendships from fazing out naturally if they’re not reinforced with good, old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.
Basically, just because you’re “friends” on Facebook doesn’t mean you’re friends in real life.