Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Does Technology Grow Your Optimal Number of Friends?

With the advent of Facebook, Twitter, texting, and mobile phones, it feels like we can be more connected with our friends than ever before. And perhaps we can hold closely a greater number of good friends.

According to Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar, what limits our social connectivity isn't our access to technology, but our brains. Dunbar says that our brains limit us to successfully managing about 150 relationships in our wide circle of friends. And the number within our inner-circle is normally about 15: five friends held especially close, and another layer of ten just beyond.

Of course, technology makes it possible for any of us to increase both of these numbers. But do we?

New studies using data from sources such as Facebook suggest that Dunbar's 150 doesn't change, even as technology makes more friends possible. The average number of Facebook friends is 120. The new data also indicate that the average number of a person's most-close friends doesn't change either. In two-way communication (email or chat), an average person communicates regularly with just five or so Facebook friends.

So why don't we harness the new technologies to garner and keep more friends? Dunbar suggests it's a limitation of our brains to manage our social networks and connect with the others we choose to include in them.

But it might also be the case that we simultaneously pursue multiple things that we care about (jobs, family time, fitness, faith), and friends are merely one of the pursuits competing for our time. Faced with this situation, on average most of us draw the line at about 150 "friends," and about 15 in our inner circles.

And if you are reading this, you are in my 15. Honest.

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