A few days ago I came across a fluff piece in which a freelance writer attempted to disprove Dunbar’s number using his facebook friends. Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships one can maintain, and lies somewhere between 100 and 230.
I have no problem with Dunbar’s number: it always sounded about right to me, though I suspected that approaching the maximum limit might devalue the quality of the much of smaller number of close friendships. A quick trawl through my 500-odd facebook “friends” narrows the current active friendships to a little under 150. Add in a few friends and family not on facebook and I fall pretty squarely in Dunbar’s expected range.
What the exercise highlighted is not some shocking revelation about how I don’t actually maintain all those facebook friendships, nor how I have this vast graveyard of ostensibly dead friendships — that list remains a valuable index of contacts through which it is much easier to get in touch with someone should it later be useful (and the ability to hide updates from individuals means regular “culls” are no longer entirely necessary). The real lesson for me was that there were a handful of people hidden in that list with whom I really did want to get in touch but, without having seen their names, the thought might never have occurred. Perhaps, rather than an act of social vanity, it is an exercise I ought to conduct more frequently in order to prevent some people falling through the cracks. After all, Dunbar might have set an upper limit, but he offers no guarantee that those social relationships will be the right ones. So I wonder: if you have more than 230 facebook friends, who might be hiding in yours?
Meanwhile, if I’m running at roughly capacity, that also means anyone who wants to join my friendship group (for reasons I cannot begin to fathom) will probably need to kill off an existing member. Friends, consider this a heads up. Don’t blame me, blame the evolutionary limitations of my neocortex.