Has Facebook changed friendship?
One of the worries you hear with Facebook -- and online relationships in general -- is that strong, close relationships are being replaced with weak, superficial acquaintances. As Zadie Smith put it, "If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out." Jonah Lehrer found some researchers who looked into exactly this question. The answer? It's not happening:
It has long been recognized, for instance, that the human capacity for close friendship is remarkably consistent. People from cultures throughout the world report between four and seven bosom buddies, or people we regularly confide in.
On Facebook, though, the average user has approximately 110 “friends,” which has led some scientists to speculate that the Web is altering the very nature of human networks. For the first time in history, we can keep track of hundreds of people. The computer, they say, is helping to compensate for the limitations of the brain.
But Christakis and Fowler were skeptical of such claims. They knew that social habits are stubborn things. So they persuaded a university to let them analyze the Facebook pages of its students, devising a clever way to distinguish between casual friends and deeper emotional connections. After analyzing thousands of photos, the scientists found that, on average, each student had 6.6 close friends in their online network. In other words, nothing has really changed; even the most fervent Facebook users still maintain only a limited circle of intimates.
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