Online and Offline Social Networks Evolving/Defriending
Continuing on Kimberley’s post on social network defriending, I’d like to stress some other points relating to social network defriending and its possible context.
The Dunbar Number
Research by Sociologist Robert Dunbar shows that, at a random moment in time, the average person has a real life social network containing about 150 contacts, varying from close friends to more vague acquaintances. This relatively constant number means that new contacts replace fading ones more or less equally.
With that in mind the American social network Friendster limited its members to a friend-count of 150 (at the start in 2002), apparently expecting that fading contacts in the real world would also be deleted online. Now, a few years further in time, it appears that online friendships don’t fade and die out the same way as real ones do. Many people have a lot (A LOT) of social network contacts. Online 150 just seems to be not enough.
“Facebook users had an average of 281 friends in their network and aspired to increase that to an average of 317”.
The average Facebook number of friends is almost double the Dunbar number! It seems that one cannot conclude otherwise than online friendship being very different than offline friendship. Of course, this is a bit of a turn on two wheels, and this needs to be founded by further (quantitative, qualitative and literary) research among and about different social network sites and -members, but for now I’m keeping it short.
‘Friendship’ and friendship evolving
As Kim writes, we have the Boyd – Beer opposition in online and offline friendship, and resulting from the above there seems to be reason to support Boyd in her position that on- and offline friendship are fundamentally different. However, we are, as Beer argues, in a process in which cultural values and phenomena ever change. Friendship is a term influenced by culture in a recursive way, continually shaped by the people who give it meaning. There is no such thing as different versions. 
Now, social networking sites are becoming a larger part of our daily life and are becoming included in our contemporary understanding of friendship; social networking sites are becoming more and more culturally embedded.
Reasoning in the spirit of Beer; what will be the result of that process? A few options: 1. Real life social networks will grow, the 1998 research of Dunbar is outdated with our current technical possibilities to maintain contacts, the Dunbar Number ‘2.0’ may as well be double the old one. Online then influences offline. 2. Online social networks will become a better reflection of real life social networks. People are getting tired of the social networking hype and large numbers of ‘Friends’ that are not real friends. The Dunbar Number will then support argument for online defriending. Offline then influences online. Or 3. People abandon their profiles and none of this is relevant (and other options like this that are not fun to think about).
- Dunbar, Robert. ‘Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language’, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
- boyd, danah. ‘Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites’ First Monday 11:12, December (2006).
- Swidey, Neil. ‘Friends in a Facebook World’, The Boston Globe, November 30, 2008, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/articles/2008/11/30/friends_in_a_facebook_world/
- Beer, David. ‘Social network(ing) sites… revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd & Nicole Ellison’, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(2) (2008): p. 516- 529.