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Facebook’s User Stats

March 3, 2009

A few days ago, The Economist posted an article called Primates on Facebook. In it, they argued that since the size of a typical Facebook user’s “friend” list hovers around 150 people, this is further validation of the Dunbar number. The article goes on to suggest that “…people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle.”

I have a couple of issues with this “confirmation” of the Dunbar number and the suggestion that social networking users are mainly broadcasting. With regard to the Dunbar number, the analysis is deeply flawed. First, you can’t use an individual’s interactions with Facebook as the sole proof point for the Dunbar hypothesis. I have 165 friends on Facebook. I also have another 550 or so followers on Twitter and another 160 or so on LinkedIn. These connections don’t even include the “Social Learning Question of the Day” @slqotd Twitter group that I participate in (another 400+ connections) or the various LinkedIn groups that I’ve joined. There is very little overlap between these groups. Effectively this means I have somewhere north of 800 or so friends and connections. I know I’m not unique in this.

The problem with this analysis of the Dunbar number is that it assumes Facebook is my only online network and that my interactions there are the totality of my interactions across the social web. The problem is that across these different networks, I interact with different sets of people. On Twitter, I frequently interact with @jclarey, @kevindjones, @dave_ferguson, @quinnovator. On LinkedIn, it’s a different set, and on Facebook, it’s a whole different circle. In each of these cases, my interactions are very different. Twitter is almost entirely professional as is LinkedIn. Facebook is a mix of professional and personal. Because of this my interactions are very different across these networks. All of this means that a simple analysis of my Facebook network and interactions is wholly inadequate.

I also think there is something a bit flawed in saying that I’m broadcasting my life to an “…outer tier of acquaintances…” The reality is that many of those “The Economist” labels as acquaintances are actually real friends. They are just real friends that I don’t have time to connect with because of the bajillion other things going on in my life. Facebook enables me to stay plugged into their lives and them into mine by virtue of these “broadcasts” and superpokes and the like. It’s silly, but it reminds us that we are still in each others lives and we’re thinking of each other. Ironically, my brother, who I’m very close to, is one of the people who would be considered in my “outer tier” based on this analysis.

I think it’s great that we do these sorts of analysis and I think we need to do more of them. At the same time, I think we need to be careful to look at any social network in isolation since so many of us now move in multiple circles and across multiple platforms, often serving different purposes. I’d love to see some sort of meta-analysis mapping the ratio or correlations between real world connections and social network connections. In other words, in today’s busy world, what is a “normal” number of real world connections between individuals with strong ties? What is the nature of a typical interaction? And how do these real world interactions map to the interactions in the social networking worlds? That would be some cool info and worthy of some real discussion.

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