Social nets may be bees knees of Internet tech at the moment, but that doesn't mean it's all straightforward and fluffy: New research is suggesting that if you're friends with over 150 people on Facebook, the extras are meaningless.
This is a conclusion of some thinking by Oxford professor of evolutionary anthropology Robin Dunbar. He's recently expanded on some of his original research carried out in the 1990s on the human neocortex—this is a part of your brain heavily involved in language and conscious thought. It's the bit of brain matter that helps you relate to other people, on a friend-to-friend basis, and Dunbar's theory is that it can only handle a maximum capacity of roughly 150 ongoing, fully interactive friendships. If you know or are "friends" with more people than this, then actually you're probably merely acquaintances instead.
Dunbar's original research was based on people engaged in face-to-face, flesh and blood friendships...so he's updated it to consider the possibility that online friendships could actually enable a larger number of friends. His new research looked at the traffic of people with thousands of online friends to those with hundreds of pals or less. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given then very biological roots of his theory, it looks like Dunbar's 150 friend figure even holds true for online relationships—even with the ease and speed of the Internet, you can't overcome your basic brain programming relating to how many people you can be friends with.
And that means that all those folks with hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends aren't really friends with that many people at all. A bit of common sense thinking would suggest the same conclusion, of course, but to see it measured at a limit of merely 150 is a bit of a surprise.
The research may also have significant implications for how Facebook expands its live user status update systems in the future. It started as a one-to-one friending device, aimed at college-age people who were keen to find a forum that would let them engage socially online, but over time Facebook's expanded its reach and is now desperate to get you to transmit your data to everyone—essentially its asking you to consider that everyone's your friend. But people do tend to protect their friendship circles pretty fiercely, and Dunbar's 150 friend limit might just be a limiting factor for Facebook.
On the other hand, some noise was made recently by Anil Dash about high follower numbers on Twitter, and how this doesn't necessarily translate into real user attentiveness among a huge crowd. You may consider that Dunbar's theory is also applicable here, supporting Dash's stance, but I suggest it's actually more subtle than that. Twitter is designed from the ground up as a one-to-many transmission system, and your identity is as protected as you like—your followers on Twitter most definitely aren't your friends. And consequently its users use it differently to the essentially similar status-updates within Facebook.
And now if you excuse me, I'm off to do some friendly Tweeting.