The Facebook Friend Paradox

The recent developments in social networking sites have greatly increased our ability to communicate with large numbers of people at any given time.  We now have access to people all over the world and can share pictures, links, posts and many others to a wide range of people.  Intuitively speaking, one would think that this innovation would make us more social overall, as we have the potential to communicate with a very large number of people.  Though social networking sites have changed the way we communicate, they have not necessarily changed it for the better.

Based on Dunbar’s number, the limit to the number of stable social relationships a person can have at one time is 150.  Numbers larger than this begin to lose social connectivity, and we can see this phenomenon in social media.  Most people with a high number of Facebook friends do not interact with the majority of them.  They may know who most of them are, but would not invite them out to have a beer or send them a Christmas card.  Social media gives us the ability to communicate with others at the shallowest level, without speech or face-to-face interaction.  This shallowness, if used too frequently, can replace other communication skills, making people less experienced in more direct social interactions.

The main paradox of Facebook is that it is portrayed as a tool used to facilitate social interactions and social connections, but at the same time it can lead to prejudice and narcissism.  People generally try to boost their image as much as possible on Facebook, chasing the self-esteem boost that results when someone “likes” that person’s status or photo or wishes that person a happy birthday when the two haven’t spoken in years.  Many people attempt to make themselves appear popular by accumulating a lot of “friends” and others are prejudged as antisocial because they either don’t have a lot of “friends” or do not have a Facebook account.  Those who are engrossed in social networks can lack a critical aspect of social interactions.  A humorous portrayal of this can be found in the commercial below.

While social networking has good use in reaching a lot of people in a short period of time, it cannot replace direct communication or the development of real friendships.


5 comments on “The Facebook Friend Paradox

  1. I heard that statistic recently that the limit to the number of stable social relationships a person can have at one time is 150. I would agree with that number or say it is less depending on the person. Compare this number to the number of Facebook “friends” you have and it makes you question who you really know or care about that keeps popping up on your newsfeed. I have always been a true believer in a few close friends are much better than a lot of surface level friends.

  2. I think that commercial epitomizes the difference in our generation vs. our parents. Even if we have hundreds of friends on facebook we don’t interact with all of them and we socialize quite differently than our parents. Even though it is great to keep in touch with high school or even middle school friends, you cannot maintain a genuine relationship over social media.

  3. I sometimes wonder what would the world be like if Facebook had chosen “contact” instead of friend. The label does seem to compress many kinds of real world differences in relationships. The compression offers some value to many people, but for some (me), there comes a point when over-connectivity erodes the value of a social network. I other words, I do not want my HS friends, my college friends, my co-workers, and my former students all with equal access to my postings.

    Facebook, made by the Harvard student, is in some ways technologically locked-in to that social perspective- “hey why wouldn’t I be ‘friends” with everyone?”

  4. I have read about Dunbar’s number too. In some ways, it is very compelling. What I think can be missing though is that it seems clear people can move between various sets of 150-based communities. So, I think it may be certain markers indicate to people they are in a trust-based community. For example, one can move between school, neighborhood, church, work, recreational leagues pretty seamlessly and most of them can or are like the magical 150.

  5. Pingback: Blog Council on Nerd Alert | Let's Get Ethical

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