The scientific study, released last month in Royal Society Open Science, made great fodder for tech blogs that enjoy delivering bad news to jaded readers.
In some form or fashion, the gist was this: All those friends you have on Facebook? They’re really just acquaintances, nothing more. They won’t support you when you need them. “… Turns out that your Facebook friends aren’t your friends. Well, most of them aren’t, anyway,” BGR.com said in a report about the study.
The post boiled down the study to this: No matter how many Facebook friends we think we’re connected to, “we only have four real friends and 14 that care at all.”
Wow. That’s disappointing. It feels like I’ve been wasting a lot of time talking to, laughing with and caring about a bunch of total strangers. Welp, guess it’s time to shut down my Facebook account.
But out of curiosity, I read the actual study, from famed British researcher Robin Dunbar, the person who first made popular the idea that in life, we can maintain only about 150 stable relationships. When you’re onto something that interesting, they often name it for you. That figure is called “Dunbar’s number.”
The study doesn’t, as some posts suggest, say that Facebook is somehow fooling us into associating with people who have a lack of empathy or who won’t support us in an hour of need. Instead, it’s about the limits of our brains and the time we have to interact. Some have wondered if the power of social networks to connect us to many more people
at a time could expand our ability to have more relationships, to stretch Dunbar’s number exponentially.
The new research appears to prove that the answer, unfortunately, is no. Real relationships still require time to maintain and our brains still have processing limits. Says Dunbar in the research paper, “There is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome. In practical terms, it may reflect the fact that real (as opposed to casual) relationships require at least occasional face-to-face interaction to maintain them.”
So, who are my actual friends? On Facebook, I’ve let my Friends list get a bit rangy since I joined in 2007; I have 1,675 “Friends,” not to brag. Of those 1,675, are only four or five of them among my “support clique,” what the study called “friends on whom you would depend on in a time of crisis”? Are only about 14-20 in my “sympathy group” (defined as “close friends” by Dunbar)?
I started counting and considering. If I counted only close family members on Facebook, that already adds up to five or six people. Add in close co-workers, friends I’ve known since high school that I still keep in touch with, plus close online colleagues, and the number goes up way past 20.
But do I talk to all these people every day? No. Would they be there for me in my time of crisis? Ah, now there’s a good question. To everyone on Facebook, I posted a public request, a kind of survey asking my Facebook friends whether they would reach out to me personally under a specific set of circumstances. I wrote, “By that I mean a personal email, phone call or in-person chat to check up on me.”
The situations were:
1. I was accused of a serious crime and you didn’t know if I were guilty or innocent.
2. I announced I was in the middle of a divorce or separation.
3. I lost my job.
4. I was in financial dire straits and asked my FB friends for help.
5. Serious illness, uncertain prognosis.
6. Natural disaster happens in my area; it’s unclear so far if my family was affected.
By the end of Thursday, which ironically was Facebook’s anniversary “Friends Day,” I had nearly 100 responses. Some were public, others sent to me privately as emails, texts or Facebook messages. Some simply listed numbers, others explained in detail why they would reach out in some of the situations, but not others.
The people of Facebook are not monolithic, especially as the social network continues to expand worldwide and the barriers to getting online cheaply and via mobile devices fall away. Even among my circle of Facebook friends, which leans heavily toward journalists, Austin residents and people in the 35-45 age range, there was a wide gamut of responses and varied consideration. A few responses made me emotional, others made me laugh. All of them were appreciated.
Some friends said they would reach out in any of those circumstances. Many said they would reach out only over job loss, illness or to help financially, preferring to stay out of my personal life if I had marital troubles or was accused of a crime.
Smart journalists said a natural disaster is too chaotic a situation to reach out by phone or email; they’d hang back to get word through media or friends on the situation. A few friends who’ve assisted others in finding jobs, getting over divorces or setting up GoFundMe fundraisers said they would not hesitate to do so for me.
But others were wary, despite our good vibes over the years. Some said they’ve been burned sticking their noses in someone else’s legal problems or have felt helpless when they’ve reached out, but been unable to offer tangible help.
One thing I like about Facebook is that the barrier of a screen and distance can allow for bracing honestly. I was told, flatly, that asking for financial help would lead some to believe I might have a hacked account or that some scam was afoot. “You wouldn’t post something like that,” a friend informed me. One acquaintance said that if I announced a serious illness, their reaction would be: “Ugh. Ignore.” I’m not hurt by that. I find, in the age of largely meaningless “thoughts and prayers” auto-sentiment, it’s refreshingly candid and human.
A few friends overthought the questions or found a loophole; if they don’t have my phone number or personal email address, they reasoned, they wouldn’t be able to reach me anyway. Some said they would only act upon the ones specifically asking for help and would ignore the others.
Most encouraging to me, though, was how many of my Facebook friends, even the ones who made clear we’re just acquaintances who know each other online, gave it some real thought. They examined each scenario, considered their past experiences dealing with life on Facebook — births, deaths, illness, “complicated” relationship statuses — and determined what I am to them and how close we are.
And it reminded me I am frequently awkward at all of this, too. I have been bad about reaching out to a friend who was laid off beyond Facebook likes until it seemed too late to bring up. I’ve backed away virtually when a couple I knew divorced when I didn’t know what to say to each of them; nothing ever seems exactly appropriate. But I have also donated to the fundraising of friends, sent emails asking, “Are you all right? Haven’t heard from you in a while,” and I’ve agonized over friends with cancer, friends with dying spouses, and friends who are alive and well on Facebook, then memorialized the next day.
Life on Facebook, whatever its limits and constraints, is still a kind of life. And like everyone there, I’m trying to learn, to connect, to be a better person to my friends, whether it’s in a crisis or just offering a laugh.
Science tells me otherwise, but I hope that the reach of our kindness and empathy can extend far beyond four crisis friends and 20 sympathy friends.
It’s something to aspire to, at least.