Social Circles and Social Media

So I’ve read several articles lately that refer to the “Dunbar Number,” the number of people in a social network that the human brain can “handle.” Based on his observance of primate interaction and multiplying his findings by the increase capacity of the human brain Dr. Dunbar postulates that the number of “stable social relationships” a human can process is approximately 150 with a much smaller number of “core” relationships.


In the last year or so many have been looking into social networking sites like Facebook as a way to test the Dunbar Number and the results seem to support his theory. The Economist asked Caeron Marlow, the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook, to gather some stats and he found the following:

Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.“

This makes a lot of sense to me. Those of us who use Facebook to keep up with a wide number of casual acquaintances can really only maintain relevant relationships with so many. There are just so many intricacies involved in maintaining even a casual social relationships and things you are expected to remember about ”friends“: Don’t curse when posting to the pages of my Christian friends, don’t suggest grabbing a drink at a bar with a friend who is a recovering alcoholic, don’t invite someone’s ex to be a fan of their band, and so on and so forth.

Human interaction is complicated and messy and though technology may erase some barriers for communicating with each other, it doesn’t really clean up the way we communicate or relate. Which means, though Facebook may make it easier to stay in touch with our friends, it doesn’t actually make it any easier for us to expand our group of friends. Because friendship is more than just recognizing a name and profile picture and clicking ”Accept”.


  • Heather

    Interesting post. That last sentence is especially true. I’ve had a few times where I’ve been so happy to find some old friend on facebook and then been disappointed when the communication doesn’t go any further than “Hey, I remember you.” The hazards of being an optimist, I guess.

  • True enough, and I feel that Facebook has pushed us in the right direction versus MySpace and others where accumulating hundreds or thousands of friends was the goal over actual interaction.

    Curious though, on those averages, if that’s over the life of the account, or for a time period. I know I communicate sporadically with dozens of people, and more regularly with a smaller number.

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    Katie Hawkey

    I had the same question about the time period the study was summarizing. Unfortunately (and surprisingly), the article did not specify.

  • Cecile

    How does one define a “stable social relationship”? For me it’s about being able to converse with someone, or being able to get together after not seeing each other for a while and it seems like no time has passed. It’s about having an honest interest in what the other person is doing/did/going to do, regardless of a quantitative interaction. I’m struggling to find what the alternative is to “stable social relationship” – would it be simply an acquaintance? Maybe I’m over-reading it.

    What Marlow seems to be doing, is equating FB interaction with “stable social relationship”. If I read that like Katie did, then yes – keeping track of more than 25 people’s information starts getting a bit daunting. My problem with is that I don’t use “replying to postings” as a good enough marker for how stable my relationships are. I would generally feel comfortable commenting on any of my FB friends posts/photos etc if something struck me, but it could be as mundane as “you look pretty”. I usually only reply to posts when they randomly come up on the news feed, since I don’t really spend time trolling through my friends profiles in the first place. If you are applying this solely to social networking sites, I guess it’s a bad barometer for judging who my friends are because it’s a two way street – my friend needs to post something I’d be interested in to comment and neither of us play around on FB enough to warrant meaningful interaction.

    What holds true for me with the article is the concept of the smaller core group, which I have little subgroups of within that core. I disagree though, that the human brain has a limit on how many friendships it can “handle” in real life though, because I associate memories or activities with each and every one of my FB friends. One or two are randos I just accepted but at least have met in life, but for the most part I could tell you about each and every person, where we met and a funny story about them. I think what comes to play is the circumstances or memories you share with someone. Some of my FB friends I know from a certain activity (such as soccer, or book club, or a film shoot) and so there is always a common topic to contact them about even if they’re not in my “core group”. I’m also pretty nostalgic so if I see something that reminds me of someone, I will immediately reach out to them even if I haven’t spoken to them in a year.

    Another factor might also be how a person cultivates friendships in real life. Since I moved around a lot, and many of my friends growing up did too (perils of an international school system), we came to value the brief moments we shared I think more highly than if we had known each other from K-12. Hanging out was more than hanging out, because when could you do it again? My best friend would change year after year since someone would always move. In addition to that, since we were in cultures that weren’t necessarily our own, many of our experiences were also memorable more than just the event, but also in terms of our surroundings. Everyone I’ve accepted a friend invite from in my middle school or high school actually had some interaction and it wasn’t simply a “I remember you sat behind me in math class” type of FB add. Film shoots are similar to that since they are so finite. You’re thrown into a situation where you spend 16 hour days with someone and genuinely develop a rapport, and then boom it’s over, wrap party, next shoot and you’re both too busy to hang out.

    But again, that’s more than an acquaintance, and I still consider it a stable social relationship. Does this mean that I hang out with hundreds of people? No. But I do consider my FB friends actual friends. Proximity is a huge issue for me since many of my friends don’t live in the same state or even the same country. And as it was brought up, the time frame really does make a difference. While it’s true I use FB mainly as an address book for all the phases of my life, I do make it a point to write to people I’m not in regular contact with certain times a year (and not necessarily birthday reminder prompted). Sometimes I write to people just because they randomly showed up in the 6 pictures of the “friends” box, but it’s an honest interest in what they’re doing, or what is going on in their picture or what have you. Point is, it’s contact and not collection and I would say I have written to about 75% of my FB friends throughout a year.

    Well, I didn’t mean to babble on. In conclusion – I agree with the concept of having a smaller core group of friends, but I think one can juggle a much larger group and still maintain stable social relationships. I also whole heartedly agree with Katie about not using social network sites to expand our number of friendships, for many people I know it’s about keeping existing ones.

  • I’ve been saying this a lot lately (and I didn’t make it up), but people don’t change. Technology does. Social media is simply the most powerful and widespread technological metaphor for the human social experience. That said, every relationship takes investment. You won’t be good friends with someone or claim to love them because you clicked a couple of links on Facebook. What I like about Facebook is that it successfully creates networks of real people who actually know each other in the real world. LinkedIn also does it pretty well. MySpace got a little out of hand with that. It encourages people to stick with people they know and guard their reputations and friend lists in a good way. In doing so, it also encourages meaningful participation online and off.

    Maybe it’s like living in a metropolitan area like Chicago rather than a rural community. I’d like to think that I’m acquainted with many more people here than I would be in a rural community. That’s not good or bad, it just comes with the territory. The question then would be, are my relationships here as meaningful? Quality versus quantity?

    I’d say that I maintain a relatively fixed number of very close relationships, a wide array of friendships (those you describe as having a funny story or two, but that you wouldn’t invite to your wedding), and a much wider network of acquaintances or business associates.

    You bring up film shoots, and that’s important. I’m involved with theater, music, and film projects that involve varying groups of people at different times. You tend to become fairly close to these people in these situations, and if you’re actively involved you’re going to meet lots and lots of people.

    I think the quality and quantify of friendships in these social networks will start to translate to a real kind of currency sooner than later. It does now in giving someone the ability to network, but I think a more tangible value will be put on it akin to advertising. It’s a little scary, but companies like Facebook are poised to get it right.

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