As users of Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking sites pile up hundreds, even thousands, of “friends,” several commentators and news articles have cautioned that there is a natural limit to a friendship circle. They typically cite the so-called Dunbar’s number, 150, as a ceiling on our personal contacts. This limit was derived by extrapolating from social groups in nonhuman primates and then crediting people with greater capacity because of our larger neocortex, the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language.

But there is reason to believe that the social-networking sites will enable their users to burst past Dunbar’s number for friends, just as humans have developed and harnessed technology to surpass their physical limits on speed, strength and the ability to process information.

Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist whose 1993 research gave rise to the magical count of 150, doesn’t use social-networking sites himself. But he says they could “in principle” allow users to push past the limit. “It’s perfectly possible that the technology will increase your memory capacity,” he says.

The question is whether those who keep ties to hundreds of people do so to the detriment of their closest relationships — defined by Prof. Dunbar as those formed with people you turn to when in severe distress.

“Technology doesn’t change that a whole bunch; you really do need to be touchy-feely with people,” adds Alistair Sutcliffe, who studies human-computer interaction at the University of Manchester. The researchers are part of a U.K. group studying the impact of technology on personal relationships.

That sentiment also was corroborated by an online survey managed by Will Reader, a Sheffield Hallam University lecturer in psychology. Dr. Reader announced the results of the first 200 surveys of young people and their networking habits in September, to much fanfare. The news was spun as proof that friendships still generally start offline.

Less-close friendships and acquaintanceships, however, also die offline, while the Web can help sustain them. At the outer edges of your friend group are the people you don’t talk to regularly, but who count toward Dunbar’s number if you’re likely to swap tales, or more, should your paths cross. A couple of former colleagues you run into at an airport bar and have a drink with might qualify. So would a long-lost high-school friend passing through town and asking for a place to stay. “You would probably have to do a lot of catching up, but they know you fit into their social world and you know they fit into yours,” Prof. Dunbar says. “You have a history.”

Similar sorts of contacts can be managed on an online social network, which helps you to keep ties with people who have moved far enough away that they might otherwise have fallen away from your social group. “You can communicate with people on Facebook in a very low-cost way,” Dr. Reader says.

Even before Facebook, Dunbar’s number never represented a true limit to friends. Other primates mostly inhabit single, coherent groups, as did our ancestors. In that case, 150 may be the cap on effective group interactions, at least in contexts like business units or self-governing villages. But modern man moves among several groups in a fragmented world, often with little or no overlap between work, play, school and family.

Also, Prof. Dunbar’s research has focused on average friend-circle sizes, not maxima. There is a wide variation in the size and makeup of people’s friend groups. He cited a range of 100 to 300 in a 2003 paper.

With low-tech help, politicians and business leaders long have been able to exceed 300 so-called friends, Christopher Allen, a Berkeley, Calif., social-software consultant points out. Aides can jot down notes on a long list of constituents that a politician can refer to when needed.

Facebook and its ilk have democratized that system by making it free and easy for everyone to do the same, going beyond simple email and personal Web sites. In the past, new friends and contacts might have replaced old ones as you graduated from college, switched jobs, or moved to a new city. Now, old friends can stick around alongside the new ones on your MySpace. When you have occasion to call on one of them, a page contains all the vital stats you’ll need to renew the acquaintance.

If the numbers game sounds tawdry to you, you’d fit in with the U.K. researchers, who are looking at the effects of such friend-hoarding. “The cheapness of communication is a double-edged sword,” Dr. Reader says. Whereas you might enrich your life with more contacts, the things that are “important for intimate friendships,” such as presents, meals and a ride in your car, he says, don’t exist.

Prof. Dunbar isn’t sold on the idea that social networks make his number outdated. The research, he says, “made us realize people don’t know what these wretched things called relationships are — and that helps explain why we’re so bad at them.”

Source - Is There A Numerical Cap On How Many Friends We Can Have?

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