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Why Facebook Does Not Get You More Friends

Social media and the limits of the human social brain

Facebook is an internet success story in many ways. From its launch in 2004, Facebook has rapidly expanded to become the most used social network site in the world. As of September 2012 Facebook has over one billion active users worldwide. It is also considered to be the best social network site. Entertainment weekly wrote in 2009: “How on earth did we stalk our exes, remember our co-workers birthdays, bug our friends, and play a rousing game of Scrabulous before Facebook.”

Yet has it actually delivered on its promise to expand people’s social networks and make the world a global village of friends? The answer is negative. Our numbers of real friendships are pretty much still the same as they were in the pre Facebook era and pretty similar to what they were before the Internet. That is according to the latest findings.

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and colleague at Oxford University, came up with some interesting data which clearly shows that Facebook actually does not get you any more friends. For instance, people with 500 “friends” on Facebook only had 26 relationships in which there was mutual communication. That's how friends normally communicate: You say something and they say something back. People with 150 friends had about 12 relationships involving mutual communication. So fewer than ten percent of Facebook relations are close friendships, according to this definition.

Why don’t we get more close friends via Facebook? One problem is the way we communicate via internet. Dunbar’s data suggest that we get a lot happier after a face-to-face interaction than after a virtual exchange via email or SMS. Skype incidentally does a better job in increasing people’s happiness, no doubt because there is the F2F option. People also laugh more easily with a real time interaction than an internet communication. Try laughing out loud at a joke that you got send in your Inbox! Laughter is a strong bonding device. Without laughter friendships rarely form.

Another reason why Facebook does not work in increasing your friendship size is because it takes time and effort to develop and maintain them. Friendships are costly. There are limits on the number of friendships we can maintain due to how our brain works. Although the human brain is much larger than that of any other species -- at least if we look at the neo-cortex -- there are limits to human sociality. Brain research shows that there is a positive correlation between brain size and group size in mammalian species. Humans come out on top. We have a relatively large neo-cortex and a much larger social network than say our primate cousins, the chimpanzee.

This suggests that sociality is the main driver of a bigger brain. The data show that the maximum network size of humans hovers around the 150 (Dunbar’s number). This is the maximum size of a social network that can be maintained through informal social control. 150 is about the average size of a Neolithic village, a Hutterite community, a modern army (company size) and the Dutch parliament.

Of course, humans do not have the same level of intimacy with everyone in their 100+ network That would be impossible given the investments needed to maintain a close friendship. It seems that we have a clique size of around five. These are the people who we see most often and feel most close to such as our close kin, partner, and friends. Then there is a sympathy group of around 12-15 individuals – consisting of more distant kin and less intimate friends and so forth.

An interesting result from the Dunbar studies is that getting involved in a romantic relationship means that you lose two friends in your network. Typically you sacrifice one friend and one family member by starting romantic relationship. This sounds about right, according to personal experience.

Another interesting result is that personality predicts social network size. People with extraverted personalities have larger social networks: Perhaps they are the truly socially intelligent individuals of this planet. In contrast, people with neurotic personalities have fewer network friends.

Men and women also differ. Males get emotionally closer to people in their network that they share activities with such as playing sports. Women, on the other hand, get emotionally less close to network friends once they start engaging in activities with them. Their definition of a friendship is more strongly determined by how much they talk to them.

So despite the promise of Facebook, it has not actually delivered on increasing the size and depth of our friendships. It is an illusion to think that we lead happier lives and have more satisfying relationships in the Facebook era than we did before. Facebook works very well in maintaining contact with your friends even though you might find yourself in different places. But to think that Facebook has somehow changed the way our social networks work and operate is plainly wrong.

Twitter: @ProfMarkvugt

Dunbar, R. (2010). How many friends does one person need? London: Faber and Faber.

Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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