Social Networking
Social Networking

His original research was undertaken in the 1990’s well before the explosion of social media activity and as a result many had started to question its validity in the all new socially connected world.

The original research determined that the average human would have 150 friends (stated as between 100 and 200), those who they would know by name, meet with individually or in a group reasonably frequently and have knowledge of their personal circumstances.

The argument by social media advocates followed the line that Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter amongst others provided an opportunity to reach and interact with far more people and therefore Dunbar’s number needed recalculating.

As ever the whacky world we live in threw up such an opportunity to test this when Dorset bakers and biscuit specialists Thomas J. Fudge’s initiated a rather interesting PR campaign.  The idea was to see the sharing of biscuits with tea or coffee as an ideal opportunity to meet face to face, with more people and actually grow the number of “friends”.  Of course the idea being to promote the quality of the Thomas J. Fudge’s product as well as the quality of relationship building and offer a ready supply of PR opportunities.

The start of the process quite correctly involved research to establish a current benchmark figure of average “friend” numbers on Facebook. Step up Professor Dunbar who worked with the University of Oxford research team and surveyed a mixed group of over 3,300 Facebook users.

The results highlighted that there were wide differences, as expected, in the number of “friends” linked to a user’s account however when the definition of friend as being someone genuine and close rather than simply known to them was applied, commonality in numbers emerged.  The average for women fell slightly higher than men 166 to 146 in group one and 196 to 157 in the second group analysed. This delivered an average of 183 well within Dunbar’s original range.

When it comes to our very nearest and dearest friends, those we would call upon in an emergency, emotional or financial crisis the number shrinks dramatically down to just an average of 5.

So it would appear that these results support Professor Dunbar’s work in the 90’s and clearly indicates that we are ultimately limited in our ability to cognitively engage with others despite the advent of the social media age.  The orbital prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain developed for such social interaction and it comes into play when we are online but more strongly when we meet face to face. So crumbs, the guys at Thomas J. Fudge may well be on to something.

It’s not all bad news for social media though as its effective use can help to prevent decay of relationships.  Facebook in particular can be a very effective tool to mark birthdays, weddings and other notable events that otherwise may well have gone unnoticed and offer support as and when required.  The truth however is that to have genuine effective relationships we need to invest time and effort and not simply be reactive.  That effort can in part be online but if we can we should ideally schedule in a bit of biscuit banter to prevent losing the connection. I’m game if you are…just wonder if Thomas J. Fudge do gluten free biccies?

Paper – Do online social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of offline social networks?

Published in Royal Society Open Science