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New study dispels myth of Facebook ‘friends’

Jealous of that one friend you know with, like, 5,000 Facebookfriends’?  According to a new study, you really shouldn’t be. Oxford’s Royal Society of Science found that regardless of how big your online ‘friend’ group may be, most of those people don’t actually care about you.

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Much like monkeys, humans have a set “personal network size,” says author Robin Dunbar in his study. Our real-life friend groups include about five really close friends and 15 friends in our extended network.

Dunbar points out that face-to-face relationships require an investment of time and energy, which are limited, thus capping the number of people with whom you can practically be friends. But an unlimited number of people can read our Facebook status updates and “connect” with us online: “Being able to interact with many individuals at the same time could in principle allow us to increase social network size dramatically,” he says.

But as it turns out, it doesn’t. Working with over 3,000 UK-based adults in comparing their social networks with their real-life friendships, Dunbar’s study challenges claims that online social networking allows us to increase the size of our actual social networks.

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Regardless of how many Facebook friends you’ve logged, the study finds most people only have an average of around four real friends in their day-to-day “social clique” on whom they could actually rely in a crisis. And our extended real-life social network includes about 14 people we’d consider “close friends.”

But should we throw in the towel and delete our accounts or start posting those obnoxious statuses that say things like, “If you’re really my friend, copy and paste this into your status bar”? Not so fast. While the term friend may be misleading, Dunbar found Facebook was still useful for some things, namely preserving friendships over time and distance.

“The fact that people do not seem to use social media to increase the size of their social circles suggests that social media may function mainly to prevent friendships decaying over time in the absence of opportunities for face-to-face contact,” he explains.

So maybe it’s time to rethink the way we use Facebook. Carefully choose who you share Facebook updates with by creating groups for your contacts that match your real-life relationships. Because, I promise you, your coworker’s fiancé’s brother probably doesn’t want to see an entire album of your baby’s first bath and your boyfriend’s friend’s uncle’s cousin probably doesn’t care to read your 500-word rant about your terrible IBS. If we all consider our actual audience, we may just keep Facebook fun.

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