Even Facebook has its limits
I’ve disclosed before that I’m a competitive Facebooker – at the moment I have 566 friends. I could probably have even more but I’ve apparently annoyed a few and they have dropped me. What, people don’t want to read 20 status updates from me during inauguration?
I’ve come to realize, however, that quantity saps quantity on Facebook. With so many people updating their statuses (stati?), I often miss important updates from my closest friends. For example, the twin daughters of one of my college friends had a birthday last month. Her status noted that fact (and I had the date in my Outlook Calendar, honestly) and I missed it because it was swamped by updates from my 565 other friends. Also, I was skiing.
I haven’t looked deeply into this and I think it’s possible with a little work, but I would like to create certain circles of friends on Facebook. Not all of my friends need to know what I’m having for dinner tonight. And I have some friends – my sisters, former roommates – who I would like to follow closely.
Turns out, my sense that quantity breeds unfamiliarity has been scientifically proven.
Several years ago, anthropologist Robin Dunbar concluded that the brain’s cognitive power limits the size of any real social network a human can develop to about 150 people. This has become known as the Dunbar number.
That theory combined with today’s penchant for social networking got inquiring minds at The Economist thinking, so they asked Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s in-house sociologist, to crunch some numbers.
The results were these:
An average Facebooker has 120 friends in his/her network, with women tending to have more friends than men. The range is large, however, and some people have many more friends than this.
Even if a Facebooker has more friends than average, s/he still only really interacts with a few people. The average man leaves comments and postings for seven of those friends, while the average woman does the same for ten people. Male Facebookers with 500 or more friends leave comments for 17 friends and women for 26.
Passively leaving comments is one thing, but actually emailing back and forth is another. The average male Facebooker chats or emails with only four people, while the average female Facebooker does the same with six. Male Facebookers with more friends email back and forth with an average of 10 friends; female Facebookers do the same with an average of 16.
It’s sort of relieving to me that the reason I can’t keep up with every person from my past and present is that my brain simply isn’t wired to handle it. I’ve loved Facebook for getting me back in touch with so many people; on the other hand, it also reminds me of my lack on a daily basis.