Streams

How Many Friends Do You Really Need?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Many people have hundreds, if not thousands of 'friends' on social networks like Facebook. But do they all really count? Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford and author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need?, discusses the theory of Dunbar's Number, which states that the maximum number of stable relationships one person can have is 150.

Guests:

Robin Dunbar

The Morning Brief

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Comments [46]

Cassandra James from Orange, NJ

Nothing beats the human touch, I agree wholeheartedly. However, as I develop my humanity and develop the confidence to embrace life in a way I never have before my network has expanded in a number of ways. Facebook is just one of the vehicles in which this has begun to manifest. I am very grateful.
I am friends with people like Nona Hendryx, Taraji Henson, etc on Facebook and I am certain that it won't be long before I am traveling in those circles in the physical as well as the virtual world. :-)

Mar. 16 2011 05:42 PM
ckk from ny

Facebook reminds me of the book 'Diary of a Nobody' ... billions of people prattling away on oft inane [my bad ... correction from above ... i guess if one is going to be clever, they'd best get the best correct word ... and spell it correctly, too ...] subjects. it's Pooterish! ... its humor derives from "Pooter's unconscious gaffes and self-importance" (paraphrasing wiki [pedia, not leaks! ;)]) ...

Jan. 06 2011 03:56 PM
Ron Laye from Abbotsford, BC

My students and I are currently analyzing data from a sample (n=139, ethnic and gender mix) of university students, average age 20, exploring the relationships between personality and patterns of Facebook use. We found that the number of FB friends correlates positively with some personality variables (self-esteem, social self-efficacy, extraversion) and negatively with loneliness. This moderate correlation was still present after accounting for the number of intimate "real" friends and "real" acquaintances. This suggests that, for whatever reason, FB "friends" represents social capital that is positive. We are currently analyzing data on profile picture and personality, including narcissism.
Ronald Laye, Ph.D.
University of the Fraser Valley

Jan. 06 2011 02:40 PM

Using Facebook now lines the pockets of Goldman Sachs. As liberal as I am, I cannot break my addiction!

Jan. 06 2011 01:50 PM
GLADYS CARBO FLOWER aka Havana Carbo from Weehawken NJ

I joined fb at the recommendation of my actor son who claimed it would be a great way to promote my music (I'm a musician - singer, composer, recording artist and Indie producer - www.havanacarbo.com ).
After having given fb a shot for several months I have come to the same conclusion Betty White arrived at ...not only is it a waste of time but a nuisance and one more thing that needs my attention - with the added bonus of providing an incredibly dull experience.
It's not for people who value the personal human connection, a stimulating conversation, a letter or phone call ...and it's the last place to foster any kind of close relationship. It turns out I have 'friended' (fb also reinvents the language) people I already know; I've also been found by some I had already forgotten and remember why. Facebook is a cold medium devoid of human emotion yet demanding of one's time, if only out of curiosity, featuring inane and personal posts by bored or lonely people who never heard of editing so you bump into ramblings and posts that are embarrassing at best. It works for some and in some cases - Of course I enjoy seeing friends' photographs and getting news, but they're lost in a sea of photos that hold no interest to anyone except to those who posted them. Except for interesting posts concerning political issues there's a lot that doesn't make my heart stop or my brain get into gear, so I find myself in 'conversation' with family and close friends and colleagues with whom I stay in touch with outside of fb anyway. I like updates from other artists but they let me know outside of fb, and I can't get excited by someone who baked a cupcake or dated a dodo...who cares? And why would anyone make that information public record or wish to elicit en masse reaction to something private? And if they show that sort of insensitivity why would I want their friendship?
To test the fb promotional value I posted some spectacular news I had just received - I was selected No. 1 Female Jazz vocalist of the year and my new CD was #1 Vocal Album of the year according to a renowned jazz poll - JSR's 32nd international jazz poll from Brazil. Family and two personal friends who already knew from my email to them commented...so much for its networking value. I find the whole fb experience wildly overrated, underwhelming and devoid of soul. It's definitely not the right place for me. Yes Betty, I agree.

Jan. 06 2011 01:41 PM
Marc Leavitt from Highland Park NJ

Brian:

This is only an FYI; I always saw Domesday Book in my reading, but never really was sure how we pronounce it in modern english. In middle english it was pronounced Dohmesdie Book before the Great Vowel Shift. In modern english it is pronounced Doomsday Book.

While I'm here, I love your show, But...I have a complaint.

I know that WNYC's call letters refer to New York City, but the station broke free some years back, and your audience comprises the New York Metropolitan region. While I went to NYU, worked in the City for years and spent countless happy days in Manhattan for other reasons, I physically live in Central New Jersey.

I know all about financial and staffing constraints and how long it takes to change a culture, but I and the 8.6 million people who live in New Jersey think we need more area-wide and particularly, Newe Jersey stories. Keep up the good work.

Marc Leavitt

Jan. 06 2011 12:27 PM
yvonne from new york

To Fafa and Sophie and others who question the "150 friends" claim. I too was very doubtful about that being bandied about.

Note that Dunbar says at one point that the term 'friend' has become too broad (e.g., Facebook has only one category of contact and that is friend), and he says that people have on average 5 to 7 really close friends. The others are not so close and/or acquaintances.

I think Lehrer should have cleared that up from time to time during the call-ins b/c at least one caller claimed to have 150 really close friends. Dunbar's findings do not support that.

Jan. 06 2011 12:08 PM
Henry from Katonah

The fact that John Boehner is Spear of the House makes me cry too.
For the US people.

Jan. 06 2011 11:59 AM
mk from manhattan

I am on facebook and I was apprehensive about using it at first, but I find it to be a valuable tool to keep in contact with my very large family and extended family 1200 miles away

Jan. 06 2011 11:55 AM
Naomi from NY

I'll only friend people that I'm really close with on facebook. So I only have 13 friends. I reject people all the time but I don't need people I hardly know, knowing my business!
It's not a competition of how many friends you can have for me.

Jan. 06 2011 11:55 AM
rob from bay ridge

i think facebook is not about friends, but about bits of information they provide

Jan. 06 2011 11:54 AM
Kate from Fort Greene, Brooklyn

There was a story yesterday about a woman who announced that she was going to kill herself via her Facebook status. Her mother said that none of her 1082 friends FB friends reached out to her in person to help her. Here is a link:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1344281/Facebook-suicide-None-Simone-Backs-1-082-online-friends-helped-her.html

Jan. 06 2011 11:54 AM
Joan

As a boomer, I find face book a way to keep in touch with geographic distant and emotional difficult relatives. It has also made it easier to know younger relatives otherwise not available.

Jan. 06 2011 11:54 AM
judy from northport

Facebook replicates what lunch used to be, in the days when we had time in the workplace to sit at a table and talk to others about what was happening: whether in the news, on tv last night, in our families. That has disappeared, as we now eat lunch at our desks. I go on Facebook each day to, well, have lunch....

Jan. 06 2011 11:54 AM
Brooke Allen from Glen Ridge, NJ

Brian,

Can you ask him the role (if any) of social networks in making NEW real (close) friends, not just maintaining old ones?

Not just the average use, but do some unusual people use it in effective ways?

Brooke

Jan. 06 2011 11:53 AM
armand from work

1yr and a half Facebook Free. I am soo...lonely.... :*-((

Actually, i'm doing just fine. If only I can't stop checking my gmail every five seconds.

Jan. 06 2011 11:53 AM

I took down my Facebook a month ago, it was not adding anything interesting to my life.

Jan. 06 2011 11:52 AM
ericf

i've noticed that when relationships formed via an online soical network get special they tend to move off that network into standard email, or other one to one media.

Jan. 06 2011 11:51 AM
Jeremiah from Park Slope

I have at least 2 very good friends who I only recently realized I am only friends with due to facebook. These are people I met once, randomly and who both live in other cities (Chicago and SF). It never even occurred to me that I have probably logged far fewer hours with them IRL than I have in snippets online, yet I consider them both dear friends.

Jan. 06 2011 11:51 AM
ckk from ny

Facebook reminds me of the book 'Diary of a Nobody' ... billions of people prattling away on oft inate subjects. it's Pooterish! ... its humor derives from "Pooter's unconscious gaffes and self-importance" (paraphrasing wiki [pedia, not leaks! ;)]) ...

Jan. 06 2011 11:50 AM
Jennifer Rauch from Brooklyn, NY

I just did an experiment where I went offline for six whole months... and the first thing that I did when I went back online was to log in to Facebook. During the time that I was offline, I felt very out of touch with my friends, even ones with whom I had fairly deep relationships. They just couldn't break out of their Facebook habits to call or write me, even the ones who used to be great phone talkers. I find that my Facebook exchanges with friends are very "flat," i.e. that I have about the same quantity and quality of contacts with people whom I don't consider closer as to people who are quite important to me.

Jan. 06 2011 11:50 AM
jean from new jersey

Never felt the need to join Facebook. I have mentioned that I would only opt in if my employer insisted.for some reason. What does the professor's study reveal about people who have no desire to be on this network? I have many close friends and enough technology in my life already. (my friends are cool with this...many have not joined either...but my siblings are hostile about my choice.!)

Jan. 06 2011 11:48 AM

As I explained in my recent Huff Post http://bit.ly/eitbUo, I have started to actually dislike certain friends because of their inane status updates. I actually have used the 'hide all posts' to permanently remove them from my radar. Wonder how they'd feel about that if they knew.

Jan. 06 2011 11:47 AM
Elizabeth from Brooklyn, NY

My New Years resolution was to go off Facebook and I've been successful thus far. My page is still up but I've set my status as "I'm taking a break in the New Year, email me instead." My friend changed my password so I'm not able to go on even if I'm tempted. I haven't run into any Facebook friends yet but I'm not sure my being off the site will effect the "casual" relationships I have. I do think however, it will help me become more productive with everything else I need to accomplish and although I will likely feel like I "missed out" on an event of some sort, I think the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages in the long run. Two good friends of mine also went off for the New Year and I think this has also made it easier to go off the site. Again, strength in numbers.

Jan. 06 2011 11:47 AM
dana from monsey, ny

Plato's Ring of Gyges that is...

Jan. 06 2011 11:47 AM
Phil from Park Slope

I think the most interesting function of Facebook is that you can stay in touch with people you don't know that well over time: they can change jobs, move, get married, etc. and you can still contact them. With a traditional address book you lose touch as people's contact info changes.

Maybe I would still be friends with the cool Bosnian student I met in Paris while I was backpacking during college if Facebook had existed at the time.

Jan. 06 2011 11:45 AM
Nina Almazouni from NJ

Being a new mom, I feel that FB is my outlet to the world that I can't engage in due to motherhood. However though, while some close people became closer to me through FB, others who are not as close stayed that way and I eventually unfriended them after a year of no contact. I would say FB replicates my interactions in reality, even though it is not as enjoyable as having a cup of tee with a real person.

Jan. 06 2011 11:45 AM
bernie from bklyn

brian's fascination w/ social networking and crowd sourcing really is a weak spot in the show's programming. you spend so much time talking about NOTHING. i'm tuning out.

Jan. 06 2011 11:45 AM
Nina Almazouni from NJ

Being a new mom, I feel that FB is my outlet to the world that I can't engage in due to motherhood. However though, while some close people became closer to me through FB, others who are not as close stayed that way and I eventually unfriended them after a year of no contact. I would say FB replicates my interactions in reality, even though it is not as enjoyable as having a cup of tee with a real person.

Jan. 06 2011 11:44 AM
dana from monsey, ny

FACEBOOK IS THE RING OF GYGES

facebook is an unreal way to build any type of solid relationship, only business...

Jan. 06 2011 11:42 AM
Fafa from Harlem

Seems to be conflation here of the maximum number of "friends" (really associates) that a human can maintain, and the number of meaningful relationships the average person needs...

Jan. 06 2011 11:42 AM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

You're using the word "friend" too broadly. At one time the term would have been an "acquaintance". And there would have been no ILLUSIONS that they fell into your friends category.

Jan. 06 2011 11:42 AM
Kate from Fort Greene, Brooklyn

There was a story yesterday about a woman who announced that she was going to kill herself via her Facebook status. Her mother said that none of her 1082 friends FB friends reached out to her in person to help her. Here is a link:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1344281/Facebook-suicide-None-Simone-Backs-1-082-online-friends-helped-her.html

Jan. 06 2011 11:39 AM
Catherine

Wow. I'm a minister, and my congregation, like the vast majority, only briefly in its sixty year history, gone over 150 members. Once congregations start getting larger than that, members start saying "I don't know everyone here anymore." Fascinating that it goes beyond congregational life.

Jan. 06 2011 11:38 AM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

Robert, I thought the same thing!

Jan. 06 2011 11:37 AM
The Truth from Becky

LOL How insecure are you?

Jan. 06 2011 11:36 AM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

okay.....

So far this is as ridiculous as I assumed.

A REAL personal relationship with 150???

C'mon! This is silly.

FACEBOOK? How about mindless "friending" that happens on Facebook?

Jan. 06 2011 11:36 AM

I agree with the advance comment by Brooke Allen from Glen Ridge, NJ:

"I have come to these functional definitions:

Family: The people you would help even if you don’t like them.

Friends: The people you would help because you like them.

Community: The people you would help, even if you will never get to know them.

I think we need all three.
Even more importantly, I’ve discovered I have a need to be needed, and that one of the most gratifying things you can do is to be of help to others. "

A very Happy New Year of

Peace - Hesch

Jan. 06 2011 11:34 AM
Robert from NYC

Phew! I thought he was going to say off the back of a corn flakes box!!!

Jan. 06 2011 11:34 AM
Joseph Satto from Brooklyn

I write for the Huffington Post and recently posted a piece entitled 'An Open Letter to my Facebook Friends: Status Update - FAIL'. http://bit.ly/eitbUo

Although the tone may be slightly sarcastic, its was really meant to help save certain of my online relationships with my 'friends'. I tried to explain that the more inane their posts, the more likely that I'd choose to 'hide all posts' and remove them from my online radar permanently. I gave a number of examples of what is OK and what is NOT OK.

Here are a few of those examples:

- Major weather event that shuts down your city? OK. Your reaction to the weather in general? NOT OK. Oh, that crazy weather, sometimes hot, sometimes cold and sometimes smack dab in the middle... really?

- Sick with an incurable disease? OK. (Is there anything I can do?) Sick with a high probability of recovery? NOT OK. Getting sick is part of life and not a particularly interesting part. Your mother probably cares, so why not just send her an e-mail?

- Getting mugged during your commute? OK. Couldn't get a seat on your commute? NOT OK. As a general rule, commuting is not fun. Less fun than your commute is me reading about your commute.

Not sure if it worked though. Most of my friends are still posting inane updates, who knows maybe they'd hidden me for a previous post.

Jan. 06 2011 11:32 AM
Donna from Ridgewood, NJ

I think technology has enabled us to multi-task everything to oblivion, including now friends. Can we keep up with all of this and still maintain our humanity - that remains to be seen. Where do we go from here? For example, when I see teenagers today conversing with friends online and they finally get together with those friends - they all start texting other friends that aren't there! When I see people sitting together at a table in a restaurant with a cell phone in their hands I find that very sad too, because they aren't there either. It is starting to seem like no one is in the moment anymore. Also, when I first started working in the 80's and I left the office I could completely be alone for a few minutes - now anyone, anywhere, anytime can reach us. I think the biggest problem is not being able to "be" anymore - and enjoying "A" friend and living in the moment. Our minds are always someplace else. It is starting to morph into how many friends can I reach via technology. Can we really keep up this momentum....We are slowly replacing human contact with technology and it is scarey

Jan. 06 2011 11:31 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

As my father very correctly told me before his death some 45 years ago, if one has only one true friend near the end, one should consider one's self extremely lucky.

Jan. 06 2011 11:11 AM
Brooke Allen from Glen Ridge, NJ

I too am anticipating how Robin defines friendship.

I have come to these functional definitions:

Family: The people you would help even if you don’t like them.

Friends: The people you would help because you like them.

Community: The people you would help, even if you will never get to know them.

I think we need all three.
Even more importantly, I’ve discovered I have a need to be needed, and that one of the most gratifying things you can do is to be of help to others.

Concentrate on being a friend to those in need (even strangers), and they might think you strange at first, but soon friendship is reciprocated. Establish relationships with acts of kindness when people have a need, and then do little more than exchange holiday greetings, and years later many of them will come through for you when you need a friend – often when your long-standing friends feel overwhelmed and are backing off.

I watch the Daily Show and little else. This frees 20 hours/week others spend on TV. I’m not keeping score, but 150 people doesn’t seem too difficult if you only have one must-see TV show.

Jan. 06 2011 11:05 AM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

I know I haven't heard the interview yet. But on the surface of this statement, this is my reaction:

150? Really? Oh please--that's nonsense! If you have 2-3 very good friends and you're happy with that then that works. If you need 150+ to make you happy then go for it. But my life is NOT going to be shorter or less rich if I choose to have a smaller circle of friends.

Jan. 06 2011 10:38 AM
Fafa from Harlem, NY

Does "friend" here need defining? If a friend is someone with whom one shares much interest and confidence, who is a source of solace and support -- can you really maintain 150 of these? Or does the above describe a "best/ close friend"?...What's your guest's definition?

Jan. 06 2011 10:15 AM
Brooke Allen from Glen Ridge, NJ

Am I doing the right thing?

I’m 58 and four years ago it hit me that all my older friends and relatives were suffering an ever shrinking circle of close friends, they were becoming isolated, and their relative who keep them company out of obligation feel justifiably put-upon.

So I began an explicit campaign to make new friends, and on-line social networks have been a big boon. CouchSurfing.org has been the best for meeting new people, but business networks are not bad. It is a numbers game, however. Of 4,600 contacts on Xing (like LinkedIn but Eurocentric), I’ve made about 200 acquaintances, 20 friends of whom 4-5 have the makings of a life-long friendship.

A massive contact network has its benefits. A single post to my 1,775 LinkedIn contacts, announcing that my son had just graduated college led to 12 job offers, and a post that I now knew of 12 jobs led to other contacts landing some of them. I’m going to Germany next month to visit 2 of the life-long friends I met on Xing, and a status message on my profile yielded 18 fascinating people who now want to meet me in person!

I really like the company of younger people. We learn so much more from each other, and I feel younger too. But I am new to this. Many of my older fogeyer friends tell me I’m crazy, but their arguments seem like rationalization of their own dullness.

Am I in for some rude awakening, or will this work out as long as I don’t mistake quantity for quality?

Regards,

Brooke

PS, Other than Brian’s group, Facebook has proven a terrible place to meet NEW people, but rather just a huge time sink.

Jan. 06 2011 09:27 AM

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