It’s just Facebook

Early last year, a former colleague at Hill Holliday and I had an interesting conversation about Dunbar’s Number. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it is the result of an anthropological study that showed, on average, a person cannot manage more than 150 personal relationships at a time. That is a high level recap, and I suggest researching it more. It’s rather fascinating.

He told me that he actively tries to keep his friend list on Facebook under 150 friends by removing people he doesn’t interact with every month or so. His rationale, rooted in Dunbar’s Number, intrigued me, so I adopted this practice for the past year as an unstructured experiment.

My general criteria for whether I kept someone was:

1. I had to genuinely be interested in knowing what is happening in that person’s life.

2. We had to have been in contact within the past 60 days via any type of communication, online or offline. I even included a person liking or commenting on one of my posts or vice versa.

3. My memory of the last interaction with the person had to be a positive one, and I had to feel like we would be in contact again.

I, at the time, had 1,200+ friends on Facebook. In an hour I cut the list down to about 220. Over the next day, as I periodically looked through my friend list, I asked myself the hard question: “is this person really my friend?” This allowed me to slim the list down to 180.

This week, I decided to stop the experiment. I noted some interesting observations about my social behavior on Facebook:

1. I could never get my friend list below 180 for political reasons. There were always about 20 people who I don’t interact with that I wouldn’t remove because of my relationship to them. As an example, I don’t interact with my grandfather on Facebook, he doesn’t even use it, but I’m not going to remove him.

2. People always accepted my friend request when I added them to my list again. I found this to be the most intriguing observation because Facebook doesn’t notify you when people remove you as a friend. It validated, to a degree, in my mind that some people sincerely use Facebook to follow the lives of others they are interested in and care about.

3. People always accepted my friend request if I added them back. Some people I added back as many as 3 times, and I was never questioned about it. This makes me wonder how people perceive the stickiness of relationships on Facebook versus those in the real world.

I tend to think people would have been offended or questioned my intentions if this communication medium were the phone. While there is a lot of research that shows people have the same emotional reactions to interactions with others through social media as they do offline, I look at Facebook as low touch in that people won’t get offended if you don’t post on their wall for their birthday. They will, though, get offended if you don’t call.

4. The smaller my friend count, the less interesting Facebook was to me. The less people liked or commented on my post, the less I paid attention to the platform.

There is something to be said about how having a large “following” in social media feeds our egos. The constant social validation you get from people liking or commenting of posts feeds our growing need for an endorphin fix.

5. Facebook’s accuracy decreased the lower my friend list was. I noticed the recommendations Facebook made on who I should become friends with or pages I should like became less and less accurate to me as time passed. I am assuming Facebook’s algorithm is more accurate if it has more data about the people you interact with to use in making recommendations.

All in all, this was an interesting experiment. Coming out of it I don’t feel like cutting my friend list down made it any easier to manage my personal relationships, because I don’t do that primarily through Facebook.

If anything, the experiment just reinforced in my mind that the number of friends/followers you have is meaningless if the relationships you have with those people are tangential. This holds true for people and brands.

At the end of the day, though, it’s just Facebook.