Why It’s Good to Have 400 Fake Friends

Your maximum number of real friends is 150, according to Robin Dunbar, a finding often cited to show that having a large number of Facebook friends is silly. The idea behind “Dunbar’s number,” as it’s usually called, is that human beings can’t maintain meaningful relationships with more than (roughly) 150 people. There is a cognitive upper limit on friendship—our brains can’t handle more buddies.

But that doesn’t mean having lots of friends on Facebook is meaningless. In fact, according to a new study, having a higher number of Facebook friends, even well past Dunbar’s number, seems to increase life satisfaction. The researchers surveyed 88 college students about their Facebook habits (number of friends, frequency of wall posts, etc.) and then measured how satisfied they were with their lives. They found that students who had more friends on Facebook were more satisfied. Among those surveyed, the mean was 440 friends; the most virtually gregarious student had 1,200, and one online hermit had 29. A majority of those Facebook friendships were superficial—someone they play soccer with or sat behind in poli sci. From the paper:

Participants’ reports of larger networks and larger estimated audiences for status updates predicted both life satisfaction and perceived social support. Proportion of close contacts did not. These findings constitute evidence that emerging adults are adapting psychologically to the affordances of social network site tools.

The key phrase there is “perceived social support.” College students aren’t having actual friendships with most of these so-called friends. The mean number of close contacts was 80, so the other several hundred friends aren’t providing actual social support. But simply thinking you have a more sizable audience for expressing your excitement about the coming weekend or bemoaning your postgraduation job prospects makes college students feel better.

It’s been thought that when you have more friends than the magic 150, these are backup friends, contacts you might call on should your other friendships fall away. But according to this study, backup friends are serving an important role right now by providing you with an audience for your updates. Since most of those relationships aren’t real, it doesn’t seem to matter whether those friends are actually reading your posts or even logging on. You just need to think they are.

One of the authors, Adriana Manago, explains via e-mail what they meant by writing that students are “adapting psychologically” to Facebook: “In the past, before Facebook, perceived social support was associated with having people to rely on to talk to privately about your problems, to come pick you up if you got a flat tire. Now, with Facebook, feelings of this idea of ‘social support’ is associated with having large networks of people potentially looking at them updating their statuses on Facebook.” Whether these friends will rescue you from the side of the road is unclear.

Now, feeling more satisfied because you think you have an online audience for your life may have downsides. For instance, there’s been a noted uptick in narcissism among college students over the last decade, which could have something to do with the notion that hundreds of people are waiting breathlessly to hear what’s up.

(The paper is “Me and My 400 Friends: The Anatomy of College Students’ Facebook Networks, Their Communication Patterns, and Well-Being,” by Adriana M. Manago, Tamara Taylor, and Patricia M. Greenfield, published in Developmental Psychology. Here is the abstract. By the way, it’s nice that the researchers refer to the subjects as “college students.” Usually, when psychologists pay a bunch of undergraduates a hundred bucks each to take a few surveys and jump through some hoops, they pass them off as typical human beings rather than wannabe adults.)

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