15 Feb 2016

Your Facebook 'friends' don't care about you

3:58 pm on 15 February 2016

Well, a few do. But not many. 


William was forced to reflect.


At first you kept track of that little number on the screen, but at some point it just got silly. Friends, so many friends, like excited ants, inviting you to their pop-up stores and app launches and pregnancy showers and "Here I come Berlin!!' parties. 

Frankly, you had underestimated your social allure, and now it was upon you to manage this heaving, gigantesque social circle. How-oh-how to preserve some precious me-time?!

Not so fast. Here to pop your balloon is a new study suggesting humans have a default number of friends – real friends – and that doesn’t actually change simply because social media is bloating your popularity perception. 

Which, actually, you probably already knew. 

What is interesting is the quantification of this Facebook "friend" illusion: Dr Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, recently crunched some numbers and released a report suggesting that for every 150 Facebook friends you have, you can actually only rely on four of them. 

Further, only 13 would express sympathy if you experienced an “emotional crisis”. (Is it cold in here?) 

Dunbar surveyed thousands of "nationally structured random sample of adults aged 18–65 years distributed proportionally to age, sex and regional population across the UK". In other words: loads of different kinds of people and not just college students, who social scientists tend to rely on as social science subjects. 

Culminating the data, Dunbar deduced that: “There is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome." 

So while it might feel like you're part of a huge friendship daisy chain, you're really not. 

Chin up, though. Facebook may not increase people’s RL social circle, but it can serve to keep real friendships afloat. “Friendships, in particular," he writes, "have a natural decay rate in the absence of contact, and social media may well function to slow down the rate of decay." 

Still, it’s still not enough to prevent friendships “eventually dying” if you don’t look that friend in the actual physical face now and again.  

All of which goes to show that your increasing use of the 'Unfollow' button should carry zero guilt, because they're not really your pals anyway. Just some human debris you collected as you went, like fluff on a jacket.

BUT, next time you parrot the old “we should catch up!” to those you really do care about, how about actually biting the bullet and following through for once?