Face Facts: Not all our Facebook friends are our friends

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Facebook is often in the news at the moment ~ whether it’s because of the site’s privacy policies or celebrities with accounts. Only yesterday, George W Bush created an account on the social networking site, gaining over 20,000 “likes” in the initial few hours, for example. So I’ve been reminded of an article I read on Times Online earlier this year, about the fact not all the people on Facebook who “like” us may actually like us.

A study conducted at Oxford University revealed that although we are inclined to amass huge numbers of friends on Facebook, in reality we are only friends with a small proportion of these people.

Carried out by Robin Dunbar, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, the findings of the study support one of his earlier theories – “Dunbar’s number”. Developed in the 1990s, this theory claimed the size of our neocortex – the section of the brain that deals with language and conscious thought – restricts us in our management of friends. Regardless of how sociable we are, our neocortex ensures we only stay in frequent (at least once a year) contact with about 150 people.

The original study was conducted on various societies from Neolithic villages to contemporary offices and showed a breakdown in social cohesion as the social groups became too large.

Dunbar is now looking at social networking sites to see if these have increased our social groupings. So far, the results imply sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Bebo have not affected how we conduct our social lives.

Dunbar said: “The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world. People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they’re unlikely to be bigger than anyone else’s.”

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