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Are Facebook Friends Real Friends?

Photo Edwin Kotchian 1

By Edwin Kotchian

          Do you have more than 150 friends on Facebook? If so, then it’s time to start unfriending. A few months ago I had around 180 Facebook friends and today I have 83. Before I tell you why I unfriended so many people and why you should, too, allow me to briefly explain Dunbar’s number. In studying different types of primates, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found a correlation between brain size and social group size. He then used his findings to predict that, based on their brain size, humans would be limited to maintaining about 150 relationships. Various estimates put this number anywhere from 100-230 but 150 is the most common estimate and will be used for the purposes of this article. There have been many studies (just a Google search away) that look at Dunbar’s number more closely and even examine how it applies in social networks such as Facebook, but that isn’t really the point of this article. The point of this article is to show you that by reducing your Facebook friend count to 150 or below you are living a more authentic and, therefore, more enjoyable life.

          Let me state right away that I did not unfriend people because of Dunbar’s number. We should not govern our social lives simply by a number that some scientist came up with. Further, this number is, of course, just an estimate and might be a little different for each individual. If you feel really good about all your relationships and you have up to 150 then you’re probably fine. However if you have significantly more Facebook friends than this then there might be a problem (but don’t worry, it’s solvable). And I know that I’m not preaching to the choir here. A little math reveals that my Facebook friends have an average of 539 friends each. This average is about 3.5 times greater than Dunbar’s number. In other words these people are claiming, albeit passively, that they are maintaining 3.5 times more relationships than Dunbar thinks the human brain capable. Have you or has someone you know ever used the term “Facebook friend” and put a little bit of sarcasm or even air quotes around that second word? If so, keep reading, because this is for you.

          So if I didn’t unfriend people to conform to Dunbar’s number then why did I, and why should you? To put it simply: catharsis and honesty. Let’s look at the catharsis aspect first. I’m sure most of you have had the experience of cleaning out junk from a closet. How do you feel before and after this process? Before you clean it out you may feel annoyance to some degree that the junk is there. You may wish that the junk was gone but not want to put in the effort to clean it. And so you may put off the cleaning for a long time, even years. But once you decide to complete the unpleasant task, how do you feel afterwards? You feel good, right? The closet looks better, you have more space and you can find the things you care about more easily. Now, it may seem a tad harsh to analogize relationships with real people to junk in a closet. It’s important to note that I am not comparing people to junk but, rather, relationships to junk. Every person has value, if not to you then to someone else. But not every relationship has value. Relationships can bring out the best or the worst in you. Or maybe they have no effect at all, other than to waste your time even marginally. How often is your news feed cluttered with content you don’t care about posted by people you don’t care about? (I’m aware that it’s possible to remove people from your news feed without unfriending them and will address that option below.) Once you clean out from your friend list the relationships that aren’t mutually beneficial, you’re left with only the people who you care about. This creates a news feed that is more enjoyable for you to read and might even make you more likely to post about topics that are closer to your heart. Though irrational, the fear of what others think of us is a real fear for many and may just prevent someone from posting what they really want to post. For me it was geography. Without the mental barriers imposed by the imagined judgments of people I didn’t care about, I posted about the land hemisphere, water hemisphere, antipodes, Bouvet Island and more to my heart’s content. I was more honest in my personal expression and as a result I was happier.

          Honesty is the other benefit, apart from catharsis, of reducing your friend count to 150 or lower. And I don’t just mean honesty regarding your personal expression (as I’ve just given an example of above). There is also the honesty with yourself (and to a lesser extent, with others) about how many friends you have and who they are. If we assume that Dunbar’s number is correct then there is no one, not even the most popular and charismatic person in the world, who has more than 150 relationships. Sure you might know more than 150 people. You might be able to recognize their faces or their names, but I’m talking about actual, meaningful, current relationships. Honesty is almost universally regarded as a virtue so I don’t think there’s too much more to say about it other than the more honest you are about the more things the better your life will be. And remember that simply maintaining a friend count of greater than 150 is passively being dishonest. Honesty can also help you when it comes time to decide who to unfriend and who to keep. I followed some pretty simple guidelines in this area. I unfriended someone if (a) I didn’t like them or (b) I felt neutral towards them and it had been a long time since any meaningful contact. Being honest helps here since it can be difficult to come to terms with the fact that you may have once had a great relationship with someone but that relationship doesn’t exist anymore and is beyond salvation.

          Now I’m sure that some of you, despite what I’ve written so far, still aren’t convinced that unfriending people is a good idea. Some of you probably even think it’s quite a bad idea for a number of reasons. Below are four questions that I think would be commonly asked to challenge my position.

1) Why should I unfriend someone when there are other, less harsh ways built into Facebook to limit my exposure to them? I could stop following them so they don’t appear in my news feed or I could make them an acquaintance so they don’t see what I post (or both).

It comes down to whether or not you want this person in your life. If for whatever reason you decide that you don’t want them in your life anymore then just go ahead and unfriend them. I believe that, even if you’re not acutely aware of it, any relationship that isn’t mutually beneficial is actually taking a toll on you however small. This toll could come in the form of an active dislike of someone or a more passive awareness of them taking up space in your brain. So if you don’t have a good reason to keep someone on your friend list (and even if you don’t have a good reason not to keep them) let your reason be honesty and just click “unfriend”. If you’re not completely convinced, then why not try unfriending just a few people at first and see how it makes you feel?

2) What if I unfriend someone and then later wish I had them as a social or business contact?

I recommend unfriending someone only if you’re pretty sure that you’re not going to need to ask them a favor someday. And of course none of us can predict the future. We’ll never know if we’ll need that girl to talk to her aunt about a job interview for us or if we’ll need that guy to ask his friend to give us guitar lessons. Just use your judgment and do what’s best for you in the present; don’t worry about the “what ifs” in the future.

3) What if I hurt someone’s feelings? It could be awkward to run into someone I unfriended in real life.

You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings. Do what’s best for you. If someone chooses to take offense to your unfriending of them then that’s their problem. They will get over it. If you run into someone you unfriended it’s highly unlikely that they’ll bring it up. In fact, there’s no guarantee that they’ll even realize that you unfriended them as they’ll receive no notification about it. If they do bring it up you can politely explain Dunbar’s number or give any other reason that suits you (or say nothing at all since you don’t owe them an explanation). If this sounds selfish that’s because it is. But not all selfishness is bad, even though the word often carries negative connotations. It’s important to take care of yourself first; that’s why on airplanes they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs.

4) Isn’t unfriending on a large scale antisocial?

No. I’m a social person and love going out and spending time with my friends and family. Over the years that I’ve used Facebook I have not escaped the all-too-common practices of sending/accepting friend requests to/from people I didn’t know well or didn’t like well. Correcting these minor errors is not antisocial and, in fact, shows the friends you do retain that they are that much more important to you.

          They say that prevention is the best medicine. I think that expression applies in the world of Facebook, too. Unfriending becomes unnecessary if you don’t send/accept requests to/from people you don’t want in your life in the first place. But if you were like me and you did accumulate more friends than your neocortex could manage, don’t be afraid to click the “unfriend” button (you can clean out your contacts lists on your phone and computer as well to go the extra mile). You’ll feel better after you do and you’ll help to make Facebook a more authentic place for everyone.

3 thoughts on “Are Facebook Friends Real Friends?

  1. HotfireXG says:

    Edwin Kotchian is a professional musician, coauthor of “MAT for Dummies” (see here: http://goo.gl/ufWj3r) and member of Mensa. In his free time he enjoys table tennis, chess and video games.

  2. AnonCwd says:

    I will refrain from ranting about how terrible Facebook is…

    You can’t have 100 “best friends” and you can’t keep in touch with EVERY person you are related to out to the third cousin-in-law…it’s just not PHYSICALLY possible (there is only one of us to go around), in addition to being too much emotional data and general information to process/retain.

    A while ago, NPR ran a piece about a new social network, called Path. It started with a limit of 50 friends, but has since increased to 150, coinciding with the number referenced in the post.

  3. Tori says:

    Hmmm. I like people. I enjoy the communication between myself and them. Largely, my fb friends consist of those I went to school with. I like to read about their lives. It goes both ways as well…people who could never talk with me growing up can now talk with me. I have this issue with being there for anyone, even if we don’t talk. I have reduced my friends list. Ive come to the conclusion unless someone is being a pain on my page or in my life, then the people I’ve met are welcome to continue to be part of my journey. I love to stay in touch.
    Take it from someone who knows what it’s like to have nothing but simplicity. It’s boring!

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