Most of your friends on Facebook may not care much about you at all, suggests an Oxford University study published last week.
Friendships involving interactions over social networks are not that different from traditional real-world friendships, found Robin Dunbar, the professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford who conducted the research.
“The conclusion is that despite the pressure to befriend all and sundry with some tenuous link to you via someone else, in fact most people just sign up to the friends they have in the offline world — bar the odd few here or there,” he told TechNewsWorld. “In other words, people are more savvy than social media!”
The maximum number of friends that the human brain can handle, according to Dunbar, is about 150 — known as the “Dunbar Number.” Those in your circle beyond your top 150, whether online or offline, likely are mere acquaintances.
People really have only about five true close friends, he maintained.
“The fact that people do not seem to use social media to increase the size of their social circles suggests that social media may function mainly to prevent friendships decaying over time in the absence of opportunities for face to face contact,” Dunbar wrote in the report on his research.
Prior Studies Misleading
Researchers who examined online versus offline social interactions for previous studies tended to survey teenagers, heavy social media users, or members of other specialized communities, Dunbar said, suggesting that those groups might not be representative of the wider public.
Researchers who claimed to observe natural communities of between 100 and 200 people examined networks of people who followed Twitter accounts or scientific email communities — groups that also are not representative, he argued.
The Oxford University study sampled two sets of adults, aged 18-65, across the United Kingdom.
One sample consisted of 2,000 adults who used social media on a regular basis — 45.2 percent male with an average age of 39. More than 85 percent said they checked social media sites daily.
The second group included 1,375 adults who worked full time and attended business meetings on behalf of their employers. The were 39 percent male with an average age of 37.4 years.
Women tend to have larger social networks, the study found. Teenagers also have larger networks, compared to older adults.
The age differential tends to be more prominent among the outer ring of the social network, the study indicated, as teenagers often use social networks to meet new people and explore. However, those connections might not develop beyond casual or short-term interactions.
In any case, teenagers have been moving away from Facebook toward more intimate networks like Snapchat, WeChat, Vine, Flickr and Instagram, Dunbar pointed out, reserving Facebook largely for making social arrangements.
Friends or Tribe Members?
Whether Facebook friends are genuine or not may be a demographics issue, suggested Susan Schreiner, an analyst at C4 Trends.
“Friends on Facebook seem to be amorphous, or varying definitions based on demographics — particularly age groups — with younger being more forthcoming about sharing than older,” she told TechNewsWorld.
“It seems that based on various research and anecdotal data, that a Like on Facebook is more like a village [identification] than firm tried-and-true friendship as more traditionally defined,” Schreiner said. “It appears — and I may be wrong — that friendship relationships are more face-to-face rather than just anonymous or far away [via] email.”
Social networks encourage people to interact in ways they may not necessarily choose to offline, said Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research.
“Facebook encourages you to accept friend requests and there’s social pressure [against rejecting] friend requests,” he told TechNewsWorld, “even if you do not know that person well.”