Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, conducted research into how Facebook friendship correlates with real-life friendship. Of the 150 Facebook friends the average user has, Dunbar found that only 15 could be counted as actual friends and only five as close friends.
“There is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome,” the study found. “In practical terms, it may reflect the fact that real (as opposed to casual) relationships require at least occasional face-to-face interaction to maintain them.”
Rather than increasing people’s social circles, Dunbar suggests Facebook and other social media may function to prevent friendships “decaying” over time.
“Friendships, in particular, have a natural decay rate in the absence of contact, and social media may well function to slow down the rate of decay,” Dunbar wrote. “However, that alone may not be sufficient to prevent friendships eventually dying naturally if they are not occasionally reinforced by face-to-face interaction.”
One person who has put the “Facebook friend” concept to the test is photographer Tanja Hollander. Between 2010 and 2015, Hollander set about tracking down and photographing all of her Facebook contacts.
Despite never having met many of them in real life, Hollander found that she was welcomed into 95 percent of the homes of her 600 social media connections. Almost three-quarters even offered her a meal or a place to stay for the night or weekend.