Dunbar’s Number, Facebook, and what really constitutes friendship

There is an interesting article on wired.com today regarding a journalist’s experiment in proving Dunbar’s number wrong.

Technically “Dunbar’s number,” a theoretical limit that pegs the number of social relationships one can maintain at somewhere between 100 and 230, applied to everyone, but I couldn’t help but take it personally.

Fast forward to late 2011. I had more than 2,000 Facebook friends. I’d singlehandedly disproved the Brit’s sociological theorem. Did I interact with every one of those 2,000 people? No. But they showed up in my News Feed. And wasn’t that enough?

Not for Dunbar, apparently. He was looking for individual interactions. Well, I thought, if that’s all it takes to disprove Dunbar’s number, then that’s what I’ll do: I’ll write personal letters to every one of my 2,000 Facebook friends.

His conclusions are:

My experiment’s outcome was crystal clear: Dunbar’s number kicked my ass.

In trying to disprove Dunbar’s number, I actually proved it. I proved that even if you’re aware of Dunbar’s number, and even if you set aside a chunk of your life specifically to broaden your social capital, you can only maintain so many friendships. And “so many” is fewer than 200.

Writing my Facebook “friends” had taken over my time. I was breaking plans with real friends to send meaningless messages to strangers. Some of the strangers didn’t respond, and many of those who did respond only confirmed Dunbar’s theory.

I walk away from this experiment with a newfound respect for 1) British anthropology and 2) My real friends. There aren’t too many of them, I now see. So I better treat them well.

For around a year now I have been trying to cut down my friend list on Facebook.

When I fist joined Facebook, Bebo and MySpace in 2006/2007 bragging rights were to be had about who had the highest friend totals. By mid 2010 I had 500 friends. However, the more friends I had, as the author of the Wired article also experienced, the less time I spent with friends in real life. I also noted that the general mood of many posts on Facebook is negative and this brought down my own mood.

Over the last year I have halved my Facebook friend list. I have essentially created a rule for myself for deciding friendships. If I have not interacted with someone in the last two years then they are not really a friend. I have also removed and/or unsubscribed from people who post excessive amounts on Facebook.

Personally, I used to be one of those annoying people who always posted multiple times a day. One of my goals this year is to cut down on that and at the moment I am being rather successful in limiting myself to one post per day. I am also rather regularly spending evenings offline and doing stuff in the real world.

I would not say that these changes have been the magic bullet in making me feel happier. I still struggle with loneliness living so far away from many of my best friends and family – and Facebook is a vital tool in maintaining long distance friendships. However, the actions that I have taken have made me value and spend more time building deeper friendships with the people who are really worth it.

What I have also found fascinating over the last year is that I am not the only geek who is feeling these things and heading in the switch off social media direction. Geeks have this great stereotype of hiding away in dark corners and keeping to themselves. However, it seems there is a limit to how much virtual interaction we can engage in before we need to experience some real world friendship too.