Your Facebook network is filled with people you don't talk to

by David Spark on March 1, 2009

Facebook’s in-house sociologist, Cameron Marlow, has revealed some really fascinating data showing that the number of “friends” we have on Facebook is a poor indicator of how many actual friends we have and how many people we actually maintain any kind of communications. I’m defining an actual friend as someone you have two-way communications (e.g. messages or chats). If you just post comments on a person’s status updates, photos, or wall, then I define that someone for which you just maintain communications.

Cameron found that the average Facebook user has 120 friends which is more in line with Dunbar’s number of 150 which is the cognitive limit of the number of people we can actually remain social relationships.

Here’s the data from Marlow (source: from an Economist article):

The average male Facebook user with 120 friends:

  • Actual friends: 4
  • Maintains communications: 7

The average female Facebook user with 120 friends:

  • Actual friends: 6
  • Maintains communications: 10

The average male Facebook user with 500 friends:

  • Actual friends: 10
  • Maintains communications: 17

The average female Facebook user with 500 friends:

  • Actual friends: 16
  • Maintains communications: 26

Interesting to see that a four fold increase in friends doesn’t increase in a four fold increase in actual friends or just maintaining communications. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, digests the numbers. She said it’s not that these people are “networking” but rather “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle.”

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

George Snell March 4, 2009 at 3:43 pm

This is why we all need clones. I must say these numbers seem low. But I guess most people don’t yet use Facebook for businesses purposes. Perhaps those numbers grow when more people start doing that?

David Spark March 4, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Yeah, it’s shocking, but doesn’t surprise me. What happens when we collect friends on Facebook is we look at them as baseball cards. How many can I get?

But after a while the thrill of having so many wears off and you really only care about that rookie Don Mattingly card.

anonymous March 4, 2009 at 6:31 pm

but here’s what’s more odd: you posting this yet adding people that you don’t know at all and then critiquing this practice. a bit hypocritical, no?

David Spark March 4, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Anonymous, even though I have a lot of Facebook friends, I know every single one of them. So to answer your question, it’s not hypocritical. :)

anonymous March 4, 2009 at 6:56 pm

well i’m one of your facebook friends that you added, yet I don’t know you. this is why this is odd to me. just bringing up a fair question…as this practice is getting a bit odd.

David Spark March 4, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Tell me who you are (email me directly) and I’ll let you know how we know each other. You may not remember when we met. :)

sonke March 11, 2009 at 2:57 am

i have over 300 friends and i’d say ive talked to 80% of them at some stage, even if its just to say hi.. its not about talking to everyone, its also about seeing how people know each other and how strange circles of friends meet… I’ve also gotten to know people whom id never have spoken to again if it weren’t for FB…

Ministert5 March 26, 2012 at 3:27 am

That is why I deactivated my account. I had 365 “friends” on Facebook. I dont personally know any of them. It is just a waste of my time.

Anonymous March 31, 2012 at 5:14 am

I’m the same way. I have almost 1,900 friends, know over half IRL (2 high schools, 3 colleges, attending meetups of common interests), made the rest through common interests, including games & being fans of particular music artists. Surprisingly, when I stopped playing MW (over 600 in my mafia), only 2 people unfriended me because of that, one I’d known IRL since high school. Several other MW players became IRL friends after a meetup. 

In a given week, I will have some kind of contact (even if it’s only liking a post or a poke) with about 3-400 of them. In the summer, when I’m not working, the numbers will be higher. Some people are more outgoing and outreaching than others. I know several people who do not allow anyone to send them either messages or friend requests. Why be on FB if nobody can talk to you? 

Ssss October 9, 2020 at 8:29 pm

Facebook makes me uncomfortable and it’s creepy and ridiculous. All those sayings, come on. I liked it for a minute now I just don’t care. Doesn’t help I went thru a serious illness and over shared. Ugh. I thought I would feel closer to folks yet strangely it’s not that way and I’m just reminded why their not in my life and it took away the positive feelings I had towards connecting again.

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