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Posted at 4:46 PM ET, 11/17/2010

Has Facebook changed friendship?

By Ezra Klein

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.

By Ezra Klein  | November 17, 2010; 4:46 PM ET
 
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Comments

Ezra,
I'd also remark that "friend" is a proxy word here in online-parlance for something different than "friend" in the non-digital realm.
The reason, I'd just guess here, is that "friend" flows better than "Acquaintance of regular contact and variably emotional connection", but just a guess.

Posted by: ctown_woody | November 17, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

my biggest worry about facebook is that it makes it easier for the odd elements in my family to keep up with me.

Posted by: bdballard | November 17, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

It's too soon to make such a determination. Culture doesn't change instantaneously, and some of the deepest consequences me be the most difficult to detect quickly. Any time that you lower the meaning of a word, you also lower the meaning of the concept behind it. Take for example, the meaning behind the word, "Christian." Long ago, C.S. Lewis wrote about the idea that, when Christian no longer means "a believer that Jesus of Nazareth is the promiseed Messiah, and that he died on a cross as the atoning sacrifice who reconciled a sinful humanity to a holy God," and became "a good person who attends church to any extent," anyone could be a Christian.
The digital definition of "friend" will, in time, become the only definition of the word, and it will affect relationships as well.

Posted by: DXC1 | November 18, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

It absolutely has changed many friendships.

People can talk to old friends....find long lost friends...and keep many people together even in long distances

Posted by: Bious | November 20, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

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