May 4, 2010

"Primates on Facebook: Even online, the neocortex is the limit"

I've been thinking about the Communication and friendship lot lately. I am staying in town for a few weeks moving around and keeping in touch with people who left. I thought of my friend who living without regular communication with anyone outside of a small group of students during a month long Anthropology trip in Belize and how challenging that may be for her. I have had limited internet connection lately and have at times felt a bit out of the loop but whenever I do get back online I still find myself talking to the close friends despite the fact I have 287 "friends" on Facebook.

I then came across a recent article in the Economist, which stated that studies have now shown showed what most of us hopefully already know: Even with the advent of Facebook, we don't actually have more friends. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar calculated, based on the brain sizes and social networks of apes, that the size of the human brain allows stable social networks of only 150 friends. Some believed that things would be different different with online social networks but new research says that we can only really keep up with 150 people online or off. In addition, the friend count doesn't change much in terms of who we regularly communicate with, with men with 120 friends replying to 7 messages while those with 500 respond to only ten more.

What also struck Dr Marlow, however, was that the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom he (or she) frequently interacts is remarkably small and stable. The more “active” or intimate the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group.

I wrote before about the Dunbar number a while back and find this research to confirm the obvious that no matter what the number of online connections we have we are really only "friends" in any real since with a few of them. That's sort of why it's annoying to hear people with 1240 friends comparing numbers. Just because you have more "friends" doesn't mean you have more friends. I for one don't care. I would rather have a few really strong connections than countless weak ones.


  1. This post makes so much sense. It's totally agreeable. I find it rather peculiar when I see people battling over the number of "Friends" they have on Facebook. I for one; genuinely prefer having smaller numbers on it. I need to weed my Facebook list. Technically, I plan on deleting my account and making a new one. What's the point of having 100000000 people you do not talk to on your friend list? Having 10 people on your list, who you genuinely talk to and are friends with and who make you happy would be a lot more worth it... in my humble opinion at least. One reason why I have about 400 friends is that I have been in boarding schools for the past 6 years. My class has been the largest class in the history of the school is both the boarding schools I have been to. There are more than 100 people in my grade alone. I however; have realised that it's quite futile to have a long list of people who aren't even your friends in person, but just have you on their "Friend List" online. This article made so much sense to me. That 150 friend thing however is a little scary. Makes me feel so useless. I would think that I have a better degree of psychological potential instilled within my system.

  2. P.S. Forgot to include this in my first comment. Had thought of it, but didn't implement it. Your blog was the first link that popped up when I typed "list social networking sites Mount Allison" in Google.

  3. Yeah there definitely is an upper limit to the number of people you need to be facebook friends with.

    I don't know if I'd use the word scary... I can't think of any real reason to need to keep in close contact with 300+ people every year. I think the number is about people that you keep in touch with...not the number of faces you can connect a name to.

    Oh cool. Yeah Google ranks this blog pretty high with a lot of Mount Allison search results because I've been writing about a lot of school related information/events for a couple years now.