Online Friends, real or not? Discussing Dunbar’s number and social media


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In 1992, Robin Dunbar concluded that the maximum number of friends one individual can have is 150 – this is now referred to as Dunbar’s number.

You might be wondering how there can be a maximum limit, surely we can have as any friends as we wish? Well, Dunbar was talking about real friendships, i.e., stable social relationships not mere acquaintances. Dunbar believes that 150 is the maximum number of friendships that we can comfortably manage due to cognitive limitations.

The size of our neocortex places a biological constraint on our friendships as neocortical processing capacity appears to restrict the number of stable relationships we can maintain. Maintaining friendships is also time consuming. Dunbar’s theory is that once a group exceeds 150 people, the members of that group start to lose their feelings of ‘connectiveness’. On average we are said to have 5 best friends, 15 good friends, 50 close friends/family, and 150 total friends.

So what about Dunbar’s number and social media?

Many social media users have over 150 friends on their social networking accounts. What does this mean in relation to Dunbar’s number and his conclusion that we cannot cognitively manage more than 150 friends?

As I see it there are a two possible explanations:

a.) Social media ‘friends’ are not really friends in the traditional sense. Therefore Dunbar’s number still applies.

b.) Social media aids our management of relationships in a manner which frees us from our previous limitations. Therefore Dunbar’s number does not apply in the online environment.

Goncalves, Perra and Vespignani (2011) found evidence to suggest that Dunbar’s number still applies in the online world. They found that even though individuals may have more than 150 connections on their social media accounts, they still showed signs of limiting social interaction to around 150 people. Rick Lax also writes a more lighthearted piece on why he thinks Dunbar’s number still applies.

In 2009, The Economist asked Facebook to find out the average number of friends per user, their answer was 120. Yes, some users have a huge deal more than this but it is interesting to note that the average falls close to Dunbar’s number.

This all suggests that social media is not providing a method of bypassing our cognitive limitation and increasing our friendships. Rather it seems that the term ‘friend’ is utilised rather flippantly on social media and an online friend does not necessarily equate to a true friendship.

“People who are members of online social networks are not so much ‘networking’ as they are ‘broadcasting’ their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle. Lee Rainie (cited by The Economist, 2009)

Social media with Dunbar’s number in mind

Interestingly this has been recognised by one social media platform; Path is an application designed to work as an online journal, which you share with your close friends and loved ones. It was developed in 2010 by a designer who used to work at Facebook. In stark contrast to many social media sites, Path limits the amount of friends a user can have to 150. This is no coincidence, Path was inspired by Dunbar’s number and built with this in mind.

What do you think?

What are your thoughts – how many social media friends do you have and how many of these do you count as true friendships? Do you believe you can maintain more than 150 close social connections?

I have less than 150 Facebook friends. This has not been a conscious decision based on Dunbar’s number, however my Facebook friends are fewer than some users because I choose to be very selective with who I add as a friend, aiming to add only those who I actually do want to communicate with on a regular-ish basis.

Personally, I think 150 people sounds like a lot of connections if we are talking about fairly close connections (or as Dunbar once described it, “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”).

In this sense, perhaps Twitter’s “followers” terminology or LinkedIn’s “connections” are more accurate than Facebook’s “friends” when it comes to defining our social media relationships.


4 responses to “Online Friends, real or not? Discussing Dunbar’s number and social media

  1. Yes I think I would agree that most of our online friends are not true friends. At one time I added friends on Facebook rather indiscriminately. This was because of a business I was involved in and the guidance was to hit Facebook. I am no longer involved and I realise that it was just spamming people. Recently I reduced my friends list from over 4000 to a little over 600. Yet even most of them I hardly know.

  2. I have almost 600 friends, and I know people that have maxed out the maximum 5,000 friends on Facebook. I started a fan page to coincide with my website because I didn’t want to friend people I didn’t know very well, as I see a lot of business people doing. Most of the people on my friend’s list are people from high school (that I don’t really talk to), and some family. I really use Facebook to connect with new people, and share on my fan page. I have a friend that will do a “spring cleanup” of her Facebook friends, and delete everyone she doesn’t personally talk to. If I did that I know I would eliminate half of my list, and possibly more, but I don’t see the need. Facebook is not my real life – It is a virtual life.

  3. Pingback: Facebook: When it make us feel better & when it make us feel worse! | The Cyber Psyche·

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