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How Many Facebook Friends Do We Have, For Real?

A few weeks ago, we reported on a study re-released by Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, wherein he retested his theory that the size of the human brain's neocortex can only comprehend social circles of 150 before cohesion gives out. In the 1990s, this number of '150' was known as 'Dunbar's number,' and he arrived at it by studying everything from primitive tribes to modern office environments. So, Dunbar revived the study, curious about how the 'Facebook effect', or the widening of social parameters due to networking, has affected our ability to maintain relationships. Primarily, he attests, it doesn't. Still, 150 is his magic number.

But what of the younger generation? Those who are introduced to people and immediately hop on their smartphones, adding away as an initial sign of 'affection'? A welcoming into their lives? And then there are those of us who have reconnected with friends from grade school, high school, summer camp, college, acting camp, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, AA, etc. Almost in spite of ourselves, our numbers add up.

Though we write about it often, most of the Switched team isn't particularly active on Facebook. The only girl on board, Leila Brillson, though, has a fair following with over 500 friends, and counts herself as an extroverted, social girl. Furthermore, she protested that she is a rather picky friend-acceptor, and that her friend list is well curated.

The Test

Leila volunteered herself, and her life, for a small experiment, as we wondered if Dunbar's number would in fact hold true in a Facebook world, and what percentage of Leila's virtual friends were indeed her friends. She hypothesized Dunbar's number was way off, believing the majority of her Facebook connections to be true comrades.

The Rules

Editor-in-chief Thomas Houston devised a couple of rules. Facebook organizes your friends list alphabetically, so we assigned each of her 500 friends a number. We chose 50 numbers (using a random number generator), and then asked three questions about the friend to which each number corresponded.
  1. What is this person's relation to you?
  2. When was the last time you spoke?
  3. Why are you friends?
Based on these answers, Thomas (a hard sell) then determined whether or not a person actually qualified as Leila's friend, considering the following factors:
  • Involvement on a regular basis in said person's life
  • Strong emotional connection
  • Continual effort to stay in touch
If said person didn't meet all of those qualifications, they weren't a friend -- just an acquaintance, or an old associate.

A couple of things we must admit before we present the results. One, we're not social scientists, like Robin Dunbar. We don't have huge swaths of data, just one test subject, and we're only testing 10-percent of that subject's online friendship database. Also, while we have tried to standardize intangible factors (like whether or not someone is a friend), emotional variables are hard to assess. We ran into some tricky ground, as you'll see.

The Data

Out of the test pool of 50 random selections, 31 were not Leila's friends, suggesting 38-percent (19/50) of the people on her Facebook are real friends. While 190 (38-percent of 502) isn't far off from Dunbar's 150, it is about 25-percent larger.

Some abnormalities: We encountered a lot of people on Leila's Facebook that she said she "should" be friends with, and most of them are in high school. Leila knew most of her real friends through 'other' means: either via a social circle, dating (someone dating a friend), or work. Also, anyone or anything of which she is a fan (e.g., a band or artist) is counted by Facebook as a friend, and, try as she might, Leila is certainly not friends with Nick Cave.

A couple of noteworthy arguments popped up during our experiment:

1. College Roommate
Leila insisted that she and her college roommate were indeed friends, even though they hadn't seen each other in about four years and hadn't even communicated online in a year and a half. When Leila pointed out that she maintained warm feelings for this person, Thomas mentioned that this was the allure of Facebook: Keeping tabs on people you have warm feelings towards, while not actually maintaining any sort of real-world friendship. Facebook is the space for all of those 'What If' people.

2. Work Colleague
When explaining about a former colleague, Leila mentioned that they ran into each other all the time, and speak every now and again. Thomas asked about personal attachment, and Leila said that while there weren't really any deep feelings, she did value this person's presence. Thomas decided this was not a friend, but rather a contact or acquaintance; maintaining such connections is another useful aspect of the site.

3. High School Bestie
Despite having grown apart from a good friend in high school, Leila declared they were still friends because of, well, history. Thomas denied this reason, because: a) if it wasn't for Facebook, Leila would have no idea where this person was; and b) social networking is a tangible way to keep track of your past. The door wasn't closed on that relationship (thanks to Facebook), but it wasn't fully open, either.


As we mentioned earlier, our study relied on a small sample and unofficial data. Yet, several things became quite apparent in our experiment:
  • Dunbar suggests that there is no 'Facebook effect' -- that social circles do not really expand because of Facebook interaction. This may be the case with real-life relationships, but the test subject attested that she maintained a few relatively close friends via instant messaging, photo and Wall posts, and link sharing/e-mail. Relationships like these were almost as important as everyday face-to-face interactions. Perhaps what is different is that a younger individual like Leila has a different, and more flexible, definition of a friend than does Dunbar.
  • However, our findings weren't too drastically different from Dunbar's number. In fact, it might be possible to assume that, due to Leila's social networking fluency, the only reason she could manage more than 150 was her dependence on online socializing.
  • Lastly, analyzing Leila's Facebook connections revealed that the groups comprised of newer friends (e.g., college over high school, work over college) tended to have a higher rate of 'real friends.' This suggests that Leila was able to find more 'real friends' as she was increasingly able to pick and choose from a larger pool of associates. Yet, she was always hesitant to say someone 'wasn't a friend' -- especially when they once were. So, given the 'friend requirements,' Thomas had to make the call. Here is the allure of Facebook: it offers a world where relationships never cease, and the past can be visualized. Sure, old acquaintances may be gone, but now they won't be forgotten.

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Tags: dunbar, DunbarsNumber, facebook, features, opinion, robin dunbar, RobinDunbar, top