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”.