Monkeys on Facebook
Written bySeptember 1, 2011
When I wrote about social networking and popularity some weeks back I was reminded how often I’m floored by the amount of "Friends" some people have on Facebook. I know one who has almost 1500. 1500! Forget 1500 friends – I don’t even think that I can name 1500 people (I get to about 40 and then I start naming celebrities and characters from The Simpsons).
So what gives? Is this person really that popular? Maybe, though I’d wager that the great majority of those Facebook "friends" are not "friends" at all, but schoolmates, workmates, friends of friends, the odd second cousin or two. In fact, I’m quite willing to say that this person has no more than 150 "friends" (or stable social relations), and I have some science to back me up.
Robin Dunbar, a professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, studies social relations between primates. He’s made some interesting observations in the course of work, the most interesting of which has to do with the number of members in a group and its relation to social cohesion. Dunbar noted during his studies that different species of primate all seem to form groups of similar size; in other words, groups with an average number of members who can interact and maintain group cohesion, which includes hours and hours of social grooming. Primates have seemed to hit upon a number of "friends" they can allow before the group seems to suffer. Dunbar thinks that this has something to do with the size of the brain (the neocortex, in particular) and its capacity for remembering. After all, one can only remember (and groom) so many monkeys a day.
But whereas social relations in monkeydom consist largely of sitting around and picking dead bugs out each other’s hair, humanity has evolved: we "Like" status updates on Facebook and tweet links to YouTube clips of monkeys sitting around and picking dead bugs out of each other’s hair. Man is essentially a monkey that wears pants (at least in public), and when it comes to our friends and contacts, there’s really not that much of a difference: the brain is bigger, and thus can handle larger numbers of relationships, but there is still a limit. In our case the magic number is, according to Dunbar, about 150.
With the growth of social networking, many have wondered whether there is a limit to the "friends" we can meaningfully interact with online. One study performed by Cameron Marlow (a research scientist at Facebook) calculated an average of 120 Facebook friends for a typical user, right in Dunbar’s predicted range of 100-230.
Now, 120 friends I can handle. Whether you have 120 or 1200 Facebook friends, we here at Spokeo have got you covered: our Friends feature allows you to keep tabs on all of your friends’ social network updates, from Tweets to photos on Flickr and new additions to an Amazon Wish List, all in one place. No other people search site offers a feature as useful. You can even import your contacts directly from your email. See here for more details.