Keep your friends close, and your Facebook friends closer

Most of us have Facebook friends that run into the hundreds, but truthfully we only keep in touch with a handful of these so-called friends

The idea of social media is to make you more connected to people around you, and yet research has found that most people are only “real friends” with a handful of others. Market research company Pure Profile recently conducted a survey for KFC, where 1003 Australian Facebook users were questioned about their connections with their Facebook ‘friends’.

The survey found that almost a third saw less than five of their online friends in the past year because they were either too far apart, too busy or simply too lazy to set up a rendezvous. According to Facebook’s official statistics, the average user has about 130 friends. However, it is not uncommon to find some users who have anywhere between 300 to over 1000 friends in their list. Sure, Facebook is a good way to stay in touch with the people who we have encountered at various points in our lives, but it is also not surprising news that people are not meeting every single one of their 300 or so ‘friends’. Melbourne clinical psychologist Peter Kyriakoulos said the rules of friendship works differently in Facebook.

“We are naturally very social beings, and of course Facebook is a great way to stay in the loop with what is going on in other people’s lives and catch up on gossip,” he said. “A lot of it is to do with social acceptance, sometimes people see Facebook as a measure of how successful you are socially.” This could lead to some detrimental effects to our real life relationships, Mr Kyriakoulos adds. The pressure to have our experiences validated by ‘likes’ or comments, can be so overwhelming and negatively impact self-esteem, potentially leading to anxiety and depression.

“If not a single person out of the hundreds of Facebook friends a person has comments on a significant event in your life you’ve made public, you might start feeling dejected,” Mr Kyriakoulos says. It is no secret that using Facebook as a social resume can attract unwanted attention to your personal social life. With many users having hundreds of people with access to their Facebook account, there are bound to be some people you would not be very keen about letting see certain things in your online profile.

At best, some ‘friends’ might find that you take a liking to a certain uncool 80s synth-pop band. At worst, your boss who you added as a Facebook friend discovers that you have been complaining about him or her on company time.

Active Facebook user Katie Klonis, 22, says everyone she adds on Facebook is someone she knows or has met in real life. She comments that Facebook has made keeping in touch with high school friends and family members overseas much easier. Even so, with 567 Facebook friends to date, it is understandable that she is quite guarded about what information she puts up for the world to see.

“I’ve made it a personal rule of mine never to post anything on Facebook I wouldn’t be comfortable with having everyone seeing, including potential employers, workmates or my parents,” she says. Katie’s tally of connections might be on the high side, yet she admits to keeping in touch in real life with just a fraction of her Facebook friends. True, some of her friends live overseas, but is there such as thing as a capacity for having a certain amount of friends? The theory of Dunbar’s Number, coined by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, suggests that the average person only has the capacity to maintain 150 “stable relationships”. Interesting, this figure is close to the official average number of ‘friends’ Facebook users have, which currently stands at 130. Psychologist Kyriakoulos explains while Facebook’s definition of ‘friends’ is far from traditional, it can be applied to the theory.

“The criteria for who qualifies as a Facebook friend differs to who you would consider a friend outside Facebook,” he said. “Facebook friends can be broken down into different categories such as acquaintances, people who you have randomly met, current friends, past friends, and people you would like to be friends with such as celebrities.” While Facebook may be a good way to stay in touch, some also see it as a more convenient little black book.

Another Facebook user Harry Polites, 21, thinks that Facebook has become a safer alternative to giving away his mobile number. With 493 people in Harry’s online contact book, he estimates there are at least 20 to 30 people he sees “very often”, while he guesses he sees 100 of his Facebook around once a year. But what about the rest? “It’s a harmless way to keep in touch. If you like someone you pursue that connection over the site. If not, then they just become another page on your friend tally,” he says.

The idea that one can have a tally of friends is echoed throughout the millions of Facebook accounts, with many users’ virtual connections end up being nothing more that a collection of people they once knew, have met, or wish they were better friends with. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps not. Similar perceived ‘threats’ to real-life interaction has been debated every time a new form of technology proposes to change we way we interact. As Facebook user Katie rightly puts it: “Social media isn’t the first thing that’s made keeping in contact with people easier- mobile phones and email has both done that in the past, and this is the next progression of technology.”