Monday, February 23, 2009

How many online friends can and should you have?

I am reading an interesting book as part of my research on social networking called, Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform your Life, Work and World. One interesting chapter deals with Facebook friends.

One thing that an online social networker must grapple with is, what is an online friend? In the real world, anyone claiming to have 300, 700, or thousands of friends would obviously have a definition of friendship that is different from the norm. defines friend as:
1. a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
2. a person who gives assistance; patron; supporter: friends of the Boston Symphony.
3. a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile: Who goes there? Friend or foe?
4. a member of the same nation, party, etc.

In normal, everyday language, we use friend in terms of the first definition. The second definition illustrates a common occurence, where the person who gives assistance to us (or invites the person over) may show themselves to be friends, but we may not feel the same. We are their friend (in terms of def. #1), but they are not really ours (def. #1). The truest definition of friendship ("real friendship") is found in terms of a reciprocal relationship for both #1 and #2.

So what are Facebook friends? A few of these Facebook friendswould be "real friends," which some think reaches a limit at 12. As to social relationships in general,

"the maximum number of people with whom any human being can maintain stable social relationships is about 150. The 150 figure--frequently referred to as 'Dunbar's Number' - happened to correspond to the size of Neolithic villages as functional units. It also matched the size of Hutterite colonies before they split off to form a new community. And, interestingly, the ancient Roman army was divided into legions of 5000 soldiers split into units of-you guessed it- 150 men." (p.48).

Beyond 150, group cohesion breaks down, and rules and regulations--rather than relationships--are required to engender proper behavior.

So beyond the 150 number, Facebook friends are clearly not friends in the truest sence, but acquintances. Friendster, an early social networking site sought to restrict the number of friends a person could have to 150, perhaps based upon the sociological rule. However, people rebelled and began flocking to other sites that were openended. It seems that something else beyond relationships is prompting us to collect large numbers of online friends . . . . This will be the subject of my next post.
Why do you add Facebook and other online social networking friends? What do you think a Facebook friends is?


Lantz said...

There is a desire by people of the need to be needed. The creation of Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, and many other online avenues gives us a false sense that we are needed by someone.

This is our story from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Interesting! Could this be applied to congregations of Christians? Shoud we consider Dunbar's number--150--and begin thinking of starting/planting a new congregation when our number tops 150?

If, at this number, functionality breaks down and "group cohesion breaks down, and rules and regulations--rather than relationships--are required to engender proper behavior", should we consider new means of grouping larger congregations into smaller groups of 150 or less in order to encourage relationships and be more effective in being our 'brother's keeper'?

Have our expectations been unrealistic for large congregations? Sometimes relationships in large congregations are very much like relationships on Facebook.

James Nored said...

Lantz, you are onto something, which I will hit on in another post.

James Nored said...

As to the question of planting another church after 150, that would certainly be a possibility. And perhaps there is a reason that churches struggle to break the "200 barrier." We are then back to the old question, Is a big church or a large church better? If there is a desire to keep the church small, then growth must still happen through church planting.

Some large churches organize around their Bible classes, which may be a church in itself of up to 150 people.

jeremy said...

I've heard our larger groups called "a church within a church". And within those, you can have multiple smaller groups of 8-16 people to facilitate even closer growth.

Back to facebook friends, Scott Brown from writes an article with some interesting ideas: Friends are the currency of the social networking. Online friend lists are the new rolodexes (except they don't throw snowballs or ask you to fill out surveys of 25 things). Friend lists remember your friends forever, when in reality friends come and go. The sweetness of being reacquainted with an old friend is removed when they were your 'friend' all along! Not to mention, there are some 'friends' who are only friends for a reason, or maybe only around for a season of our lives. Some people are just not meant to be 'friends 4-eva'.

James Nored said...

Jeremy, thanks for the wired link. You are hitting on one of the uses of Facebook--the "weak link" contact list. I'll post on this soon.

Reader of Tomes said...


Another interesting book on this idea of community is Joe Myers, The Search to Belong (see As I remember it, he identifies 4 levels of community that we need (corporate, social, personal, and intimate).

Clearly "the Dunbar 150" is at the corporate level, but we can have many many more corporate friends than that. The level of belonging at a rock concert or a football game swaying in the stands is powerful. And on-line friends seems like that.

But corporate friends can't replace our need for deeper levels of belonging. We do need real relationships in life-- at every level.

Hope this helps. Your friend.

James Nored said...

Thanks, Jason. I'm not sure how to change the display name . . .

Anyway, thanks for the post. I really liked The Search to Belong, and I think that it does indeed have application here.

Keep Cynthia in line for us down there in Houston!