When is a "Friend" a Friend?

>> Monday, September 14, 2009

Facebook has certainly changed our network of friends and our social relationships. A huge amount has been written about it lately and I know that all of my "friends" are talking about it.

This is a world where William Martino thrives (you should follow him on Twitter at @wmartino) so I asked for his thoughts.

Hope this finds you well -- Jim.


Perhaps it's a coincidence, but I noticed two articles last week which discuss a "backlash" against Facebook.

The first, from Elizabeth Bernstein at the Wall Street Journal, wants us to think before we post—all of the useless/silly/boring/"too-much" information we share in our status updates are ruining the relationships people have with each other. Over at the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan points to things like privacy concerns, losses in productivity, and yes, even us marketers, as reasons why people are abandoning Facebook.

Whether you agree with the sentiment in those articles or not, it's clear that social technologies like Facebook are making us question the nature of our friendships and radically changing what that label means. People who we've lost contact with—whether intentional or not—are coming back into our lives, loose acquaintances are now privy to the sometimes intimate thoughts and actions of our day, and we are coming to realize that "six degrees of separation" is probably more like three or four.

Our circles of friendship are suddenly a lot larger than they used to be, but are the relationships we have with all these people the same?

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized that there is a limit to the number of people that we can maintain a stable relationship with, based on the size of our neocortex. This number—Dunbar's number—is about 150 people. I don't know about you, but most people that I know on Facebook have at least that many friends in their network.

Facebook themselves have conducted research to better understand our growing social graphs, including the number of friends we have, how tightly we're connected, and how often we communicate with each other. The results are quite interesting:

  • The average network size is about 120 people, with women typically having more friends than men (of course, the range is quite large—some people have networks in the teens, others in the thousands).

  • In a network of that size, most people only "maintain a relationship" with less than 20 of them (this number goes up as the network gets larger).

  • The number of people you passively communicate with (browsing status updates or photos, for example) is between 2 and 2.5 times as many as the number of people you actively communicate with (exchanging email, for example).

Clearly, there are multiple meanings in how people define a friend. On one end of the spectrum, there are the casual connections that are causing our networks to swell (friend-of-a-friend, co-worker, etc...). But on the other end are our "classic" friends—the people with whom, even without technology, we would still have deep relationships.

Our wellness is greatly influenced by the people we surround ourselves with, and this mix of different types of friends is a key component. There is strength and reassurance (and maybe a bit of ego) in large numbers—we feel a sense of security in knowing that we are (or at least can be) in touch with so many people, if necessary. But volume can't compensate for quality, and we still need a core handful of people that we know we can trust and rely upon.

Brands that are engaging in social media need to understand this mix as well. Chances are, they are a casual connection and not in the "inner circle" of friendship. They need to respect where they are in the social graph (understanding boundaries, levels of intimacy, when it's OK to intervene, etc...), otherwise they will lose their friendship altogether.

- William Martino, Digital Strategist at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness


Tom September 17, 2009 at 2:10 AM  

Yes, a brand is a thing, not a person. Even if I am a fan of a Page/brand, I don't want my wall to get more than a post per week.

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