Evolution to Facebook: Oh no you di’n’t!

For the woman in the middle, the other two are numbers 151 and 152: Even on Facebook.
For the woman in the middle, the other two are numbers 151 and 152: Even on Facebook.Courtesy Brother O'Mara
Oooh, Facebook. You’re like a little invisible community of invisible robot people. You let us know what our worst enemies are up to these days, what our cousins look like when drunk, and who really identifies with Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” (No, like, really. When the sun shines, we’ll shine together, you know?)

And, of course, you’re turning out to be a fun sociological laboratory.

Remember a year and a half ago when you found out that you were a narcissist for having so many Facebook friends? And you were all, “Whatever. That guy I high-fived in the hotel lobby and I are besties, and he’s a vital friend, and so adding him to my friends list doesn’t mean that I’m just trying to accumulate meaningless social capital by presenting to the world how many people are interested in me in some way.”

And I was all, “Yeah, ok, you’re right.” Because your feelings, even if you are a narcissist, are very important to me, and I didn’t want you to be a sad narcissist.

But you know what else is important to me? Being right. And also science. So check this out: All but 150 of your Facebook friendships are… meaningless!

Say what?! My friendship with the Argentinean with a very similar name to mine is meaningless?

Yes, I’m afraid so. If you’re being honest with yourself, you and Juan Gordon aren’t actually that close.
Guess who's under the limit: Me. But it's only because I'm not friendly. Ever.
Guess who's under the limit: Me. But it's only because I'm not friendly. Ever.Courtesy JGordon

See, evolutionary anthropologists have found out that humans can keep track of about 150 relationships. And that number is nothing to sneeze at; 150 is a lot of relationships, perhaps the most of any animal.

As the new PBS series, The Human Spark, points out, brain size (at least in primates) seems to relate to the number of individuals an animal can keep track of. Chimps, with fairly large brains, can keep track of about 50 individuals. Humans have brains about three times the size of a chimp’s brain, and we can keep track of about three times that number of individuals. It’s part of why we can live in huge cities, and all that. (Read more about it and see clips from The Human Spark at Science Buzz’s Human Spark page.)

And that seems to be the rule: we can have meaningful relationships with only about 150 people. (I don’t mean meaningful in the “we tell each other secrets under the blankets” way, but rather in the “something that can be called a ‘relationship’ in anything by the most inclusive sense of the word” way.)

So what about those other 527 Facebook friends you have? Are they just chopped liver? Yeah, pretty much. Evolutionary anthropologists at Oxford University wanted to see if the 150 relationships rule remained true in online communities, where people seem to have much, much larger networks of “friends,” so they compared the actions of Facebook users with thousands of friends to those with hundreds of friends (or less.) The anthropologists found that there was no difference between the groups’ number of interactions on Facebook. That is, people with thousands of friends didn’t interact with or follow the actions of any more users than people with a couple hundred friends did. Just like in real life, you can have meaningful relationships with only so many people, and the rest are just there to (maybe) make you look cooler.

What do you think? Did you and your giant friend list just get sonned by anthropology, or do you think you and your 2000 friends are proving that online communities and relationships don’t follow the limits of biological evolution? (Because, of course, when the sun shines we—all 2000 of us—shine together.)

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

shanai's picture
shanai says:

I don't know this for sure, but I think some people actually do have a greater capacity to maintain large numbers of relationships, however superficial, than other people do. Some people (including Malcom Gladwell) call them connectors - those people who seem to know everyone. Facebook and other technologies probably help facilitate this ability by making it possible to have more connections that are flimsy, but that you can easily check-in on and reestablish - just by clicking on their page. So in a way, maybe the mere fact that we ARE connected (somehow) is what it's all about - not just that it looks cool?

Personally, I think Facebook serves a couple of functions - and only one of them has anything to do with maintaining (or faking) friendships. I think people use it to entertain themselves, to feel connected to a community, to spy on crushes, and also, to perform and develop personal identities in a really public way. Maybe it just feels good to feel like you have an audience?

Along those lines, this New York Times article from 2006 is pretty interesting.

posted on Fri, 01/29/2010 - 9:39am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Yeah, I'd say the number of relationships we're able to maintain probably varies a fair amount from person to person. 150, after all, isn't even a hard number, so there's going to be a range on either side. And just as there are people who seem to naturally excel in other areas, there have to be folks who are exceptional in their capacity for relationships.

Also, there was a mention at the end of the article I read about how people have different requirements for maintaining "meaningful" relationships with others. I think it said that women, in general, may be better at relating to friends just by talking, while men often need some sort of physical encounter to relate to a friend. So it seems reasonable that, for some people at least, the occasional Facebook checkup could do the trick.

And, yeah, for me Facebook's primary purpose is to facilitate the stalking and judging of others. As far as creating an audience to feel good... I suppose that's true, but whatever happened to good old-fashioned public nudity? Kids these days...

posted on Fri, 01/29/2010 - 12:15pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I like facebook, no mtter what

posted on Fri, 05/21/2010 - 12:18pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Very true, it is just ridiculous being even aquainted with someone that you will probably never meet in your life. How are they going to make and impact on you other than giving you the pathetic feeling of being in someway significant for how many friends on facebook you may have. While i think it is not accurate to compare our brains to that of chimps. i think that "knowing people" might become more of a burden at times than helpfull to your self satisfaction.

posted on Thu, 07/29/2010 - 1:01pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I personally do believe, that people such as those in South Africa or such as don't have as much education.

posted on Sat, 08/28/2010 - 2:40pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i am furious with the way you talk about facebook. My cousin would never drink to the point of being drunk and can not believe that you would say he ever would

posted on Mon, 12/27/2010 - 2:19pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I seen your cousin! I seen him drunk on peach schnapps! Y'all need to have a talk, and I want to be there when it happens so you can apologize to me.

posted on Fri, 12/31/2010 - 1:33pm
SnoAngel's picture
SnoAngel says:

I don't think you should be friends with someone on Facebook if you're not seeing them at least oncce a month.

posted on Fri, 12/31/2010 - 2:15pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

why do people even try to make friends with people they don't know? that's just sooooo ridiculas.

posted on Mon, 03/14/2011 - 3:04pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:


posted on Tue, 05/17/2011 - 12:21pm
L.Y.M.'s picture
L.Y.M. says:

No offense , but this is just too funny!!

posted on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 12:43pm

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