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I never thought that we would be so ‘obsessed’ with friends. Collecting friends seems to be a fad that refuses to die down thanks to social networks. When we talk about social networks, we usually hold up the example of Facebook.
From debating privacy breakdowns to putting up an argument on what we are going to talk about here, Facebook is served up as an example. Strangely, I have found very few mentions of the professionally angled LinkedIn when it comes to talking about the numbers on your network.
Why does the number of friends on Facebook matter so much?
It is perhaps a teenage phenomenon that has invaded all age groups. The number of online social relationships is an ego trip for the young. A sense of competitiveness drives the need to befriend as many as you can.
There’s actually no correlation between the number of friends you really know in the physical world and the number on Facebook. The number of real friends is a minuscule fraction of that. But why should the number of friends we have on Facebook matter so much?
– Personally speaking and I am sure you have noticed it too that the numbers do affect your news stream. It turns into a flow of irrelevant information. The news you may want to read just might get drowned out.
– A large number of friends may open a door to cyber stalking. Passive cyber stalking is just a step away from active harassment. This is a real danger, because I am pretty sure that a large percentage of Facebook users are not totally aware of privacy controls, and it’s only recently that Facebook has made it a bit easier to grasp.
– You can segregate friends into lists, but beyond a manageable level, the information you distribute might overlap across lists. You surely wouldn’t want your business contacts to hear about the fight you picked up at the coffee shop.
I am sure there are many more arguments against having too large a network of passive contacts on Facebook. So, what exactly is the right number of friends to have on Facebook?
The search for the magic figure
There have been many studies which have gone into this – the magic number.
Facebook itself went into this with an officially sanctioned research effort. The study is from 2009, but it says that the average number of friends a user has on Facebook is 120.
The study says that – the average Facebook user communicates with a small subset of their entire friend network, they maintain relationships with a group two times the size of this core. This not only affects each user, but also has systemic affects that may explain why things spread so quickly on Facebook.
The other ‘constant’ that’s doing the rounds is Dunbar’s Number. It places a theoretical limit of 150 friends with whom you can maintain stable social relationships. That is, you know exactly who each person is and how they relate to you.
It actually has no direct connection to Facebook but was a study that described human association in general. But it was adopted wrongly or rightly for online communities.
The ‘right’ number of friends in your circle of life
I think arriving at the right number is a personal exercise. There are different ways we communicate on Facebook. For instance, we signup on online groups to keep up with updates; we join common interest groups and befriend others there; or we follow celebrities or specialists. Each contributes something to our number of contacts.
For many, including me, Facebook is like a live address book. There are loads of inactive contacts, ready to be tapped when I need them. Each though forms a part of the Facebook stream and we do come in passive contact with them when they post status updates.
Facebook is also highly informal…it is very unlike LinkedIn where you just stick to your professional contacts and also perhaps curate your friend list with more care.
Personally, I also have a core group of people with whom I communicate regularly. It hardly extends beyond 10. A casual glance through my email address book also revealed a similar figure. That figure works for me. It might not work for you because you might be in a profession that requires aggressive networking. You also might have time on your hands to cultivate more active social relationships.
The ideal number of friends to have on Facebook seems to be closely related to the kind of activity you do on Facebook. Facebook just gives you the bedrock. Making and maintaining relationships falls upon us individually.
So, what’s the number for you? Do you have predominantly real friends or there’s a good mix with virtual strangers too?