Dunbar’s number, named for anthropologist Robin Dunbar, proposes that the number of meaningful relationships a human being can maintain is capped at around 150. During the early days of Facebook’s rise, commentators tried to apply Dunbar’s number to our ever-loosening online definition of “friend.” Now Dunbar himself has undertaken a study of Facebook and discovered the average person only has four “real” friends on Facebook, and around 14 people who give a crap at all. Depressing!
In an effort to determine whether social media can break past the apparent limit on our real-life friend networks, Dunbar surveyed more than 3,000 Facebook users, with an average “friend” count that shouldn’t be surprising: 150. But of those 150 friends, people said they could only count on 4.1 in an “emotional crisis,” and that only 13.6 were close friends who could be counted on for sympathy.
And the “support cliques” and “sympathy groups” didn’t seem to get larger as people acquired more Facebook friends, Dunbar found: “Respondents who had unusually large networks did not increase the numbers of close friendships they had, but rather added more loosely defined acquaintances into their friendship circle simply because most social media sites do not allow one to differentiate between these layers.”
The numbers Dunbar observed on Facebook fall right within the ranges he found in real-life friendships, leading him to conclude that software hasn’t yet increased the human brain’s capacity for maintaining social relationships. As he put it, “online social networks remain subject to the same cognitive demands of maintaining relationships that limit offline friendships.”
He also found that social media alone isn’t enough to maintain our close friendships. Talking online can slow down the decay of a relationship, but if we don’t see our best friends face-to-face, they’ll eventually fade from our group of four, to the group of about 14, to part of our 150, and eventually out into the ether of our 500 loose social contacts.
Technology can do a lot of things, but it still can’t give us more friends.