How many Facebook friends do you have? 100? 200? 1000? It is assumed that people generally have many more ‘friends’ on social media than in their real lives, but can you be any closer to people you only know through the Internet than people you know in real life? According to a study by psychologist Robin Dunbar, the same constraints that limit the number of friends we have in real life apply online, and contrary to popular belief, most people don’t have as many ‘friends’ on social media as we think. Professor Dunbar carried out two surveys of over 3000 people about their online habits. The results show that “even among regular social media users, the average number of friends they had on Facebook was 155 in the first survey and 183 in the second,” reports Oxford University.
The numbers are right in line with the Social Brain Hypothesis, which theorizes that “our brain’s ability to process multiple relationships creates a natural group size for humans of 100 – 200 people.” Even if our brains could handle juggling more people than that, most of us don’t have the time. But what about those who have hundreds upon hundreds, even thousands of Facebook friends? Professor Dunbar’s studies show that even those with large numbers of ‘friends’ online tend to have small support and sympathy networks. “When asked specifically how many people they would turn to for support in a crisis and how many they would turn to for sympathy, on average those groups were just 4 and 14 friends respectively, matching the offline findings of the Social Brain Hypothesis.” As Professor Dunbar comments, “no amount of social media will prevent a friend eventually becoming ‘just another acquaintance’ if you don’t meet face-to-face from time to time. There is something paramount about face-to-face interactions that is crucial for maintaining friendships. Seeing the whites of their eyes from time to time seems to be crucial to the way we maintain friendships.”