Have you got too many Facebook friends?

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We all know people that have amassed hundreds (or even thousands!) of Facebook friends.  Interestingly Facebook itself stipulates that your account friend limit is limited to 5,000 maximum contacts.

Are people really and truly that popular?
Are your Facebook friends actually “real” friends? 

In the 1990’s Professor Robin Dunbar (Head of ICEA, University of Oxford) identified that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can maintain “stable social relationships” (in other words friends).  No exact number can be given but this is commonly agreed to be a maximum of around 150 people.  This theory has become known as Dunbar’s number.  It seems that the average human mind is incapable of managing strong relationships with over 150 people as it is limited in essence by the size of the human brain.

This number doesn’t just relate to friendship groups either – numerous different studies have shown that Dunbar’s number also relates to any group – be that in terms of company size, tribes, civilisations, villages and so forth.  If above 150 the groups become difficult to manage and can naturally begin to break down and people leave or splinter off into smaller sub groups.

Do you have more than 150 friends?
Do you have more than 150 Facebook friends?

A meaningful relationship has been defined as a reciprocal bond based on trust, the understanding of who that person is, how that person is connected to other people and your ability to maintain a connection and understanding with that person.

Apparently no matter how sociable a person is, 150 is the maximum number of personal, reciprocated relationships that an individual can maintain (including friends and family).  Ongoing research by Dunbar has shown that social media does not change this pattern – despite many people having many more than 150 Facebook friends.

In theory, if you look honestly and closely into your own core circle of friends and family Dunbar’s number dictates that your true friendship group will number less than 150 people.  In real life (and mirrored on Facebook) these will be the people that you engage with the most and are the people that we can discuss important or personal matters with and that would be happy to do a favour for us if we asked them.

Of course Facebook and other social media channels give us the tools to conveniently connect and stay in touch with a larger number of people more easily.  It is also notable that Facebook perhaps enables people to stay in contact in situations where the friendship would have ended naturally otherwise.

The fact however remains that without getting together for real face to face contact relationships will eventually break down.  It seems that this is particularly important for men who are not as good as women at maintaining relationships just by talking to each other (now who would have guessed that?!).

In watching various interviews with Dunbar, to research this blog post he explains that face to face contact is so important because we are a very social species.  We need to trust people to maintain friendships and business relationships and understandably it seems that trust comes from looking each other in the eye and interacting on a personal level.  We take cues from facial expressions, touch and body language which either “tune us in” or not to the other person.  We need this physical experience to build connections and renew existing relationships.  Face to face interaction releases endorphins and a connection which simply cannot be triggered via virtual online conversations.  Friendships are fragile relationships which need nurturing to keep them on track.  Without this personal interaction sooner or later relationships will start to deteriorate.

As an event and conference management company Events Northern Ltd are big believers in meeting up face to face.  Of course we enjoy and see the value in using social media too, in both our work and personal lives, but we understand that it cannot replace or replicate the euphoria of a celebration or special occasion shared with close friends or the buzz, networking, ideas generation, selling and business opportunities of a conference or exhibition.

For us the moral of "Cheers!"this blog post is to enjoy Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc as part of your personal and working life but just don’t leave it too long until you meet up in person!  Time and effort need to go into personal relationships – regardless of whether they are of a personal or business nature.  Social media is a great way to keep in contact with both real friends, more casual acquaintances and contacts but don’t forget to connect face to face to ensure your real friendships and working relationships stay strong and true.