Here’s an interesting bit of context for the discussion about online “friends”: the number of close friends listed by the average American has dropped over the last 25 years, according to a new study by Matthew Brashears of Cornell University, who surveyed 2,000 U.S. adults as part of a national series of “Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences.” The results are being published in an academic journal called “Social Networks.”
A quarter-century ago, the average American listed three close confidantes, defined as people (outside their family members) with whom they had discussed “important matters” over the last six months. Today that number has dropped to 2.03, according to Brashears’ study, which confirms earlier studies indicating that “modern discussion networks have decreased in size.”
In the survey 48% of participants listed one name as a close confidante, while 18% named two close confidantes, and 29% could name more than two close confidantes. Four percent couldn’t name any close confidantes.
In an interview with LiveScience, Brashears cautioned that his findings may simply mean we’re getting more selective about who we share important matters with: “Rather than our networks getting smaller overall, what I think may be happening is we're simply classifying a smaller proportion of our networks as suitable for important discussions.”
Still, this makes for interesting reading when you consider that the average Facebook user has 130 friends, according to stats from the social network.Even allowing that most people tend to have a larger circle of “non-confidante” friends, the Facebook figure probably reflects what I call “friend inflation.” For comparison a study published by MSN Messenger in 2003 called “Anatomy of Modern Friendship” found that most people maintain (actual) social relationships with an average of 33 friends at any given moment.