You are not alone


While this phrase brings to mind X-files, what it means to social media researchers is that the web has ensured that no one ever needs to be lonely.  Online networking has seen to that.

Before considering how genuine or how close your internet friends really are, you might think about whether that matters.

One of the benchmarks for friendship networks was set by Robin Dunbar, evolutionary anthropologist, Oxford University, in his book, How many friends does one person need?  Dunbar theorises that there is a "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships" – sometimes known as Dunbar’s number.  He suggests that the primate brain can only manage 150 genuine social relationships.

Interestingly, Facebook’s owners say that the average number of friends for any member is currently around 130, which is not far from Dunbar’s number.

On the other hand, there are contacts both below and above that number with whom we may not have a close relationship, but because of social networking tools we are able to keep in touch much more easily than ever before.  What is more, those “weak ties” may have more influence on our lives than you may think.  One researcher who has found that weak ties of friendship are highly influential on your opinions and your success is Mark Granovetter (American Journal of Sociology, vol 78).  For instance, people get jobs through opportunities passed on by affiliates rather than close friends.

Other studies demonstrate how use of Facebook increases self-esteem.  Nicole Ellison of Michigan State University is quoted in the New Scientist, 10 July 2010, as saying “Support and affirmation for weak ties could be the explanation” (Ellison et al, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 12).

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is growing evidence that making friends and influencing people go hand-in-hand online. The New Scientist article quotes a series of experiments by Michael Kearns of the University of Philadelphia, which found that well-connected individuals had greater influence than others in the online world in the same way as their counterparts do in the real world.  (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 106, p.1347).  The researchers found that those with up to 300 friends were rated increasingly popular, but after that number their social appeal seemed to drop away.

Facebook’s own research backs up the correlation between subjective well-being and web-based social networking.  Contentment from site use is attributed by Sandy Pentland of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the ability of networkers to broadcast to their social group which, he says, means we may never feel alone.

So you can now get back to those emails and respond positively to those sent from members of Linked-in asking you to join their network.  But when you get to 300, you can relax, or unfriend some as you befriend others.  Good networking.

Posted by Joseph Peart