Dunbar’s number, named for anthropologist Robin Dunbar, proposes that the number of meaningful relationships a human being can maintain is capped at around 150. During the early days of Facebook’s rise, commentators tried to apply Dunbar’s number to our ever-loosening online definition of “friend.” Now Dunbar himself has undertaken a study of Facebook and discovered the average person only has four “real” friends on Facebook, and around 14 people who give a crap at all. Depressing!
In an effort to determine whether social media can break past the apparent limit on our real-life friend networks, Dunbarsurveyed more than 3,000 Facebook users, with an average “friend” count that shouldn’t be surprising: 150. But of those 150 friends, people said they could only count on 4.1 in an “emotional crisis,” and that only 13.6 were close friends who could be counted on for sympathy.
And the “support cliques” and “sympathy groups” didn’t seem to get larger as people acquired more Facebook friends, Dunbar found: “Respondents who had unusually large networks did not increase the numbers of close friendships they had, but rather added more loosely defined acquaintances into their friendship circle simply because most social media sites do not allow one to differentiate between these layers.”
The numbers Dunbar observed on Facebook fall right within the ranges he found in real-life friendships, leading him to conclude that software hasn’t yet increased the human brain’s capacity for maintaining social relationships. As he put it, “online social networks remain subject to the same cognitive demands of maintaining relationships that limit offline friendships.”
He also found that social media alone isn’t enough to maintain our close friendships. Talking online can slow down the decay of a relationship, but if we don’t see our best friends face-to-face, they’ll eventually fade from our group of four, to the group of about 14, to part of our 150, and eventually out into the ether of our 500 loose social contacts.
Technology can do a lot of things, but it still can’t give us more friends.
The purpose of this study was to examine how social networking site (SNS) use, specifically Twitter use, influences negative interpersonal relationship outcomes. This study specifically examined the mediational effect of Twitter-related conflict on the relationship between active Twitter use and negative relationship outcomes, and how this mechanism may be contingent on the length of the romantic relationship. A total of 581 Twitter users aged 18 to 67 years (Mage=29, SDage=8.9) completed an online survey questionnaire. Moderation–mediation regression analyses using bootstrapping methods indicated that Twitter-related conflict mediated the relationship between active Twitter use and negative relationship outcomes. The length of the romantic relationship, however, did not moderate the indirect effect on the relationship between active Twitter use and negative relationship outcomes. The results from this study suggest that active Twitter use leads to greater amounts of Twitter-related conflict among romantic partners, which in turn leads to infidelity, breakup, and divorce. This indirect effect is not contingent on the length of the romantic relationship. The current study adds to the growing body of literature investigating SNS use and romantic relationship outcomes.