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Last updated March 3 2011 10:00AM
We ask two experts if the social networking website is destroying relationships, or bringing people closer together
Yes, says Cameron Marlow, data science manager at Facebook
In the past, friendships were greatly limited by the constraints of time, space and attention; increasing home and workplace mobility has made it even harder to maintain social ties over time. Through a combination of user controls, technical innovations and changing social norms, Facebook is freeing us from these constraints, making friendships more accessible, engaging and diverse than ever before.
First, Facebook allows you to find and rediscover friends and then reminds you of these connections, so that you are less likely to fall out of touch with the long-lost school friend, or the family member in a different country. Second, Facebook creates an environment that allows you to interact easily with others: you can share your photos, videos, links and thoughts with your friends, and respond to what they share in turn. Third, Facebook’s unique system of algorithms and filters helps you to discover your friends’ most relevant stories. These technologies allow people to maintain and enrich friendships that they might otherwise have been unable to maintain.
The effect of this is profound. A recent study by Keith Hampton for the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that users of social networking websites have larger, more diverse social circles, online and offline. This outcome comes at no cost to one’s closest relationships, which are maintained in person and over the phone. Instead, the hour that the average user spends each day socialising on Facebook comes at the expense of less social activities, such as the three or so hours a day the average person spends watching television.
Time may limit our ability to maintain social ties, but our desire for social interaction is limitless. Just as boats have allowed us to traverse oceans and bulldozers have allowed us to move mountains, Facebook is a tool that allows us to stay more deeply connected with a larger and more diverse set of friends. This is good for friendship.
No, says Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Oxford
The internet will open up new vistas, create the global village — you can make new friends all around the world. That, at least, is what they promised us. The difficulty is that they reckoned without the human mind. The reality is that we cannot maintain relationships with more than a limited number of people. No matter how much social networking sites strive to put you in contact, their best efforts will be defeated by your mind.
The problem is twofold. First, there is a limit on the number of people we can hold in mind and have a meaningful relationship with. That number is about 150 and is set by the size of our brain. Second, the quality of your relationships depends on the amount of time you invest in them. We invest a lot in a small number of people and then distribute what’s left among as many others as we can. The problem is that the less time we invest in a relationship, the more our emotional engagement with that person declines until eventually it dies into “someone I once knew”.
This is not, of course, to say that the internet and social networking sites don’t serve a socially valuable function. Of course they do. But the issue is not that they allow you to increase the size of your social circle to include the rest of the world, but that you can keep your relationships with your existing friends going even though you have to move to the other side of the world.
In one sense, that’s a good thing. But it also has a downside. If you continue to invest in your old friends even though you can no longer pop down the road and see them, then in all likelihood you aren’t using your time to make new friends where you now live. And I suspect that probably isn’t the best use of your time. Meaningful relationships are about being able to “do stuff” with people, face to face. The internet will slow down the rate with which relationships decay, but it won’t stop that happening eventually.
Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, is author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need? (Faber & Faber, £14.99)
Join the debate: Fight Club Live, March 3, 1pm, thetimes.co.uk/eureka-daily
Eureka Live “Is Facebook good for friendship?” Debate with a panel of experts at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1, March 3, 7pm, free