How Intimate are Facebook Relationships? The Dunbar Numbers

Spend some time on Facebook or Twitter and read your friends’ throwaway comments—one says she’s having a rough day, another is psyched that he passed his Spanish test—and you get an intimate look at what’s on their minds. People who are especially attuned to others’ feelings may start to feel as if they’re a member of a beehive, part of a collective mind-meld.

While it’s easy to mock obsessions with Twitter and Facebook, the tools do serve their purpose, in a unique way, of letting people know more about their friends. Every individual tweet or post, even the remarkably mundane ones, adds up over time to a larger picture. Follow a friend’s Twitter long enough and you may be able to recognize the patterns and fluctuations of his life.

Picture from pbs.org
Picture from pbs.org

But with Facebook users’ friend counts climbing into the high hundreds (I know someone who reported having 1233 friends), I have to wonder if it is all too much. Psychologists worry that if people get constant updates from hundreds of friends and are expected to care about these friends’ problems and happiness, their emotional energy could be spread too thin. Will their close, real-life friends get shortchanged as a result?

Robin Dunbar. Photo from gustavus.edu
Robin Dunbar. Photo from gustavus.edu
Getting to know you... Photo from gallery.nen.gov.uk
Getting to know you... Photo from gallery.nen.gov.uk

The Dunbar number

One anthropologist even tried to determine if there’s a limit to how many friends and acquaintances a person can know at a time. In 1998, Robin Dunbar studied how humans and apes create social bonds through special grooming techniques. For humans, we develop relationships by chatting, having conversations. Apes get up close and personal by picking at one anothers’ fur. Dunbar theorized that “unless we spend enough time doing social grooming—chitchatting, trading gossip or, for apes, picking lice—we won’t really feel that we ‘know’ someone well enough to call him a friend.” Apes’ social circles seemed to be limited to 55 members; for humans, it’s around 150. This hard-wired limit on the number of friends is called the “Dunbar number.”

Do online tools like Facebook and Twitter increase people’s Dunbar numbers? Sociology experts say no. While users’ social circles have grown exponentially because of social networking sites, their groups of close, intimate friends don’t increase much. What’s different is that Facebook keeps those weak ties—people we would ordinarily forget about—on our consciousnesses. Facebook pushes them from the back of our minds to the forefront every time they show up in a News Feed update. Oh, yeah, that person exists, we remember.

Weak ties may help solve problems--give us some fresh, objective advice--but may they also water down our emotional connectedness? Parasocial relationships, according to psychologists, occur when people become overly attached to a fictional character or celebrity. Think of the people who follow their soaps avidly or the crazy stalkers who are convinced Johnny Depp’s in love with them. Some experts worry that the weak ties in our online friend groups are nearly as parasocial, crowding out real-life people who are actually close to us. They are the acquaintances who come out of the peripheries of our minds and demand our time and thought on Facebook. There’s no true intimacy, but some people may confuse the interaction for that.

Source: Thompson, Clive. “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy.” The New York Times 7 Sept. 2008. Nytimes.com. Web. 11 Jan. 2010.

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Comments 4 comments

Debarshi Dutta profile image

Debarshi Dutta 6 years ago from Calcutta

Great Hub, very useful insights.

A social networking site like Twitter, Facebook, Myspace makes communicability and access convenient and easy.

But that does not improve the quality of the communication or the quality of connectedness.

In fact sites like Facebook and users of such sites often devalue and make frivolous the essential character and dimension of any human relationship by making it too easy.

So all that is over-solicitious and over-helpful and overbearingly invasive to private spaces may also be a complete nuisance.


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks again, Debarshi! I appreciate your thoughts.


sligobay profile image

sligobay 6 years ago from east of the equator

Great analysis of the superficiality of social media. There are many detrimental aspects to trying to remain in contact and fellowship with so, so, many people. Lost in cyberspace is a real risk and the reason that I closed my Facebook account. There were too many sharp Internet Marketing types who invaded my personal space. We are all susceptible to materialistic sales pitches. The monetizing of social media is the subject matter of many internet marketing courses and strategies. Cheers, G


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks for the comments, Sligobay. The marketing on social media sites is another thing people should consider besides just keeping in touch with friends!

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