Relationships are complicated, and the digital edge doesn’t make them any less so. Today, people share their secrets, heartbreaks, and triumphs with loved ones through social media more than they do in person. It’s also easier to add a “friend” to your social network, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the term “friend” means the same thing as it did in the pre-Facebook era.
While more and more people form solid bonds across digital networks, one researcher says that no matter how many friends you have online, you can only rely on about four in times of crisis. Researcher Robin Dunbar, a well-known evolutionary biologist, examined two different surveys to learn how people view their virtual relationships. Of the 3,500 Britons in the two studies, most said that while they might know more people online, there are still only four friends they can count on during tough times.
The virtual world is built on numbers, with most people assuming you can determine a person’s popularity by the number of Facebook friends they have. The other assumption is that most people have hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends. The truth, according to Dunbar’s research, is that the average user only has about 150 friends, and only about 15 percent of users have more than 300 friends.
Further, you would think that the number of people you can count on would increase with the number of people you know, but the surveys indicated that this simply isn’t true. You experience more interactions, but even on the high end, it’s estimated that most people can only count on approximately 15 friends for sympathy, which doesn’t extend to reliability when it comes to needing more than just an, “I’m sorry to hear that” in your thread.
It seems that most people rely on Facebook to keep in touch with those who may not be readily accessible otherwise, but nothing replaces the face-to-face interactions that loved ones rely on to stay connected. Just as it was in the past, before virtual friendships, loved ones still appreciate a hot cup of coffee with an old friend in person.