One can never have too many friends. Well, not according to Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford and an expert in social networks.
His research, The Dunbar Number, suggests that us humans can only sustain a maximum of 150 meaningful relationships at any one time – and the internet, specifically social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, is not helping us to increase this number.
And Dunbar puts straight those of us who naively think we can maintain friendships with an occasional post or tweet. ‘All it does is slow down the rate of decay,’ he says. ‘When you’re physically separated, your relationship will deteriorate, normally at quite a quick rate. Facebook, slow and clunky as it is, will slow that rate down, but if you don’t get together at some point once every so often, there is nothing on earth that will stop that relationship falling off your 150. It might take 10 years, but you’ll end up on the Christmas round-robin list.’
Dunbar’s research into our social connections has also revealed striking differences in the way in which men and women maintain their relationships and how new media accommodates these idiosyncrasies. ‘The technology is much better designed by pure accident to meet the processes that are used naturally in women’s networking,’ he explains, pointing out that two-thirds of Facebook’s regular users are female. ‘These new media kick in very nicely into half of the world’s natural style and probably don’t address the other half quite as well,’ he adds.
Gender aside, the real challenge for social networks, says Dunbar, is video and solving the non-tactile experience of online. ‘Anyone that sorts out the virtual touch problem will win the next Nobel Peace prize,’ he says.
Top five take-outs
1. Social networks such as Facebook have not had a significant effect on how we structure our social world. ‘The urban myth that there are many people with thousands of friends is not true,’ says Dunbar.
2. A backlash against social networks is unlikely – ‘they’re too useful’.
3. Privacy has been a big tension area for social networks in the past few years and will be more so in the future.
4. Social networks such as Facebook have evolved around the structure of face-to-face interactions and, as such, appeal more strongly to women – men and their clipped conversations are not so interested, says Dunbar.
5. Nothing beats face-to-face communication. Social networks already incorporate video content, and will increasingly need to do so. ‘Face-to-face and Skype are in a completely different league. It seems there is something critical in seeing the whites of people’s eyes.’