You Really Only Have 150 Friends.

→ by Nick Douglas < @nick >
at 9:00am Jan 26, 2010

The London Times says that only 150 of your Facebook friendships matter. Might as well delete everyone else! This claim is repeated by the Telegraph and a collection of paid bloggers that should know better. They all base this claim on a recent study by Robin Dunbar.

The anthropologist predicted in 1992 that humans could only maintain communities of 150 people without complex rules of interaction. His research confirmed this. (Other researchers found significant networks up to 230 or 290 members, but Malcolm Gladwell didn’t write about them so who cares.)

Now Dunbar says his Facebook research indicates a similar phenomenon online. His actual words: “You can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world.”

That’s not at all what these bloggers are saying. Some journalists and commentators seem to be distorting a nuanced scientific finding into a simple, catchy axiom!

That part is funny and predictable. That they do it for no good reason (this story isn’t really a big traffic magnet; Gawker only gave it a third of a sentence) is the sad part. It makes me want to donate to the bloggers’ little PayPal tip jars because these people lack the basic skills and drive to join the workforce. They are literally paraphrasing some shit they read on the internet and adding a banner ad.

Seriously, how bankrupt is the world of tech commentary when no one points out the obvious flip side of this finding: Nearly anyone with more than 150 Facebook friends has had some interaction with those other friends. They may also use this network to change who makes it into that 150-large “inner circle,” still rendering Facebook’s expanded network very useful.

Not everyone missed this! Shel “Not Israel” Holtz got it. He points out that Dunbar can be precisely right about the limited “inner circle” without discrediting the value of the outer circle. Some guy from Mashable got it, even if he doesn’t take it anywhere. That’s okay, working for Pete Cashmore would leave me a husk of a writer too.

Anyway, all this is pretty useless until we get a closer look at Dunbar’s definitions. What constitutes “contact”? Does trading FarmVille coins count? Because I’m pretty sure that shouldn’t count.

What about tagging someone in a photo? Do I need to comment back about this to make it an interaction? Doesn’t adding the friend in the first place count as an interaction? Does it count when I read someone’s news feed, or is that excluded just because it’s asynchronous?

How does Dunbar deal with the new range of communication options that bear little resemblance to real-world interactions and thus come with a new set of social mores? Facebook users don’t yet seem to have their own consensus about these rules, or my aunt wouldn’t keep inviting me to a game I don’t want to play instead of actually talking to me.

And at the most basic level, how does Dunbar’s number even make sense on Facebook? According to Gladwell, in a Dunbar group, I know how each person relates to each other person. Don’t most Facebook users have lots of friends who don’t even know the others exist? Isn’t this a completely different metric than what the new research studies? I assume Dunbar has answers to this, and I assume I won’t hear about them from any of the sources above.

About the Author: Nick Douglas

My book was so bad it destroyed publishing. What have you done?