Having lots of friends online doesn't mean you'll have more people to pick you up when you're down. Research published last week in The Royal Society Open Science journal shows that we tend to keep our friend groups small -- on the internet and in real life.
Study author and Oxford psychologist Robin Dunbar analyzed a survey of 3,375 Facebook users in the United Kingdom. He found that, despite having about 150 Facebook friends on average, the participants would only turn to about four of those friends in an “emotional crisis.” They relied on about 14 for “sympathy.”
People tend to have similar numbers of close friends in real life, according to Dunbar's previous research on social networks. So, even though social media sites like Facebook expand our online networks, they don't actually swell the ranks of our true friends.
That’s because maintaining meaningful friendships, online and off, requires lots of time and mental effort.
“Creating friendships is very expensive in terms of time: to keep a friendship you have to invest a lot of time in the person, otherwise the friendship will inexorably decline in quality,” Robin Dunbar wrote to The Huffington Post in an email on Monday.
Nothing about social media changes that basic fact.
Here's Dunbar in a 2012 TED Talk explaining why social networks won't win you more friends:
This doesn’t mean technology could never allow us to overcome the constraints that keep social groups relatively intimate, Dunbar says. Technology that does a better job approximating face-to-face interactions might have a shot at growing real-life friend networks.
New technology “will likely need to involve vision and touch because both are central to how we interact with each other (and make a big difference in how satisfying we find an interaction),” Dunbar told HuffPost.
Nor do Dunbar's findings mean that large online networks lack value. Online social networks allow people to collect information from a large and diverse group of contacts, University of Michigan professor Nicole Ellison, who has researched Facebook networks, told HuffPost.
"Broadcasting a request for information via a status update is a great strategy for getting a quick answer from a diverse network," Ellison said in an email.
Dunbar concludes that using social media might make it easier to keep friendships alive, but he reckons it’s not enough to prevent friendships from withering and networks from shrinking over time.
Without face-to-face contact, friendships are bound to fade.
Time currently spent on Facebook keeping dying friendships on life support could be spent developing new, more meaningful friendships. And making new friends, Dunbar concludes, is probably a better use of one's time.
“When you need that shoulder to cry on, you need a real shoulder -- a virtual shoulder simply doesn't do the job.”
If you don't work at it, a Facebook friend will inevitably become "an acquaintance you once knew," Dunbar wrote.