Okay, okay, that headline may be overstating things a bit. But a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford suggests that social media – despite its apparent efficiency in enabling us to communicate with large groups of people – can’t overcome our basic psychosocial wiring, which limits us to relationships with roughly 150-200 individuals.
The article, titled “Do online social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of offline social networks?” investigates social media in the context of the “social brain” hypothesis, which states that there is a characteristic or average size for human social networks. The limit of roughly 200 relationships is imposed by the time and cognitive effort required to maintain each relationship; when the number is exceeded, the time available to keep up relationships falls below a minimum level and the quality of relationships begins to suffer.
With the rise of social media, some have suggested that this rule might be revised, since many of the activities involved in maintaining a relationship – including verbal communication, emotional support, and simple acknowledgement – can be carried out on social media on a larger scale, and with less time investment, than the traditional means of face-to-face interactions. However skeptics say our brains still impose a basic cognitive limit on social network size.
To determine whether this is the case, the researchers conducted two random surveys, including one of 2,000 social media users and another of 1,375 business professionals who regularly have face-to-face meetings. Respondents were asked roughly how many friends they have on Facebook, then how many of these they considered close friends, as well as how many they would go to for advice or sympathy in a time of distress.
The researchers found that the average number of Facebook friends was 155.2 in the first sample and 182.8, both close to the ideal value of 150 suggested by the social brain hypothesis. Interestingly women listed more Facebook friends than men in both samples (165.5 versus 145 in the first sample and 196.2 versus 156.6 in the second).
Furthermore, the average numbers respondents said they considered close friends and people they would go to for advice (4.1 and 13.6 in the first sample) closely mirror the ideal values of roughly five and 15 suggested by the social brain hypothesis, which relies on a hierarchical relationship model. On average respondents in sample one also said they only considered 28% of their Facebook friends to be true friends, roughly corresponding to the third tier value of around 50.
The researchers note: “Respondents who had unusually large networks did not increase the numbers of close friendships they had, but rather added more loosely defined acquaintances into their friendship circle simply because most social media sites do not allow one to differentiate between these layers.”
On that note, the rise of new social networks may in fact reflect these constraints: “It is perhaps worth noting that there has been a notable tendency for teenagers to move away from using Facebook as a social environment and to make use of media like Snapchat, WeChat, Vine, Flickr and Instagram instead, with Facebook being reserved mainly for managing social arrangements. It is not yet entirely clear what has driven this, but the fact that Facebook is too open to view by others seems to have been especially important. Teenagers have much smaller offline social networks than adults, and forcing them to enlarge their network with large numbers of anonymous ‘friends-of-friends’ may place significant strain on their ability to manage their networks.