A new study from Oxford University confirms why we have to specify someone is a “Facebook friend” instead of a friend.
Professor Robin Dunbar looked at the relationship between people's Facebook friends and real friends, and found that only 14 out of the average 150 Facebook friends a user has would express any sympathy for the user on Facebook; only five Facebook friends could be considered “close friends.”
The study also found that age played a significant role in the number of Facebook friends that participants had, reflecting the differences in how teenagers and adults use social media. The 18- to 24-year-old group of participants had an average of 282 “friends,” higher than the overall average of 150 “friends.” Dunbar attributes this to the fact that “children are less discriminating than adults in defining friendships,” and that social networks “typically encourage promiscuous 'friending' of individuals who often have very tenuous links to ego (X is a friend [or friend-of-friend-of-a-friend] of Y, so would you like to befriend them?).”
Although users with more friends than average may think they have more close friends, Dunbar found the trend actually holds for them as well:
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.
According to Dunbar, friendships have “a natural decay rate in the absence of contact, and social media may well function to slow down the rate of decay.” But don't rely on Facebook solely to keep your friendship alive – Dunbar recommends meeting face-to-face to “reinforce” the friendship.
Given that people generally find interactions via digital media (including the phone as well as instant messaging and other text-based social media) less satisfying than face-to-face interactions, it may be that face-to-face meetings are required from time to time to prevent friendships, in particular, sliding down through the network layers and eventually slipping over the edge…into the category of acquaintances.