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The evolution of the human brain is deeply intertwined with our experience as social beings, and the ability we have to bond with others through co-operative activities. According to Dunbar’s study of human brain size and complexity in relation to those other species, humans can manage at most around 150 people as part of their personal network (including family members, acquaintances and friends), while maintaining active and stable relationships through co-operation with them.
Just a few years ago, in 2009, it was suggested that the average number of contacts on a Facebook profile varied between 120 and 144. This finding was consistent with Dunbar’s figures. However, this number has rapidly grown beyond such limits. Until January 2010, Facebook offered a maximum limit of 5,000 friends per profile, so that people could ‘add real friends only’. Amongst the first to reach these limits were of course celebrities, but also everyday users started to approach the 5,000 limit, especially those using their profile as a platform for self-promotion or business promotion.
The longer an active user stays on a social networking service (SNS), the greater number of friends he or she is likely to accumulate. Now, 144 contacts is regarded by many users as a very limited number. A large majority of users’ contacts are simply casual acquaintances and not people with whom they have significant relationships. As SNS users add more contacts to their lists, they face the need to negotiate the sharing of information with a variety of social circles such as family, old friends, new acquaintances and work colleagues.
These circles may have different social demands and pressures associated with them. This may result in users restricting who may view information using their privacy settings, although most users probably don’t keep up to date on the frequently changing controls for such settings in Facebook.
Fred Stutzman, a professor at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science, carried out a pilot study based on a quantitative analysis into ‘identity-sharing information’, comparing information shared over different SNSs with information shared in a physical directory produced for student use. He considered the opinions of participants about disclosing personal information across each medium. He suggested that data such as photos, political views and sexual orientation are new types of information currently only widely shared by students through SNSs, access to which may prove ‘potentially invasive’.
A large majority of users are becoming increasingly selective when adding contacts to their profiles. Many manage their personal networks relatively strictly, by limiting their network to close friends and family, however their networks keep on growing. Therefore, as Cain points out, ‘the ability to define the audience through privacy features is an important component of Facebook’.
Many users seem to be more reflective now about whom it is that they wish to add to their networks and for which purposes. It may be that this enhanced selectivity will continue to increase as users continue to adapt to these sites.
As the number of contacts on SNS personal networks keeps growing, so will the need to study how this increase in social connections affects how people are using their profiles, and what choices they are making in sharing self-representations and personal information through multimedia shared over these sites.
Cain J (2008). Online social networking issues within academia and pharmacy education. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 72 (1) PMID: 18322572
Dunbar, R. (2010). ‘How Many Friends Does One Person Need?’, London: Faber and Faber.
Nessi, L. (2011) ‘Constructing Online Identities on Social Networking Sites: Social, Economic and Cultural Distinctions Made by Privileged Mexican Users’, (a thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Nottingham Trent University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy), Nottingham, United Kingdom.
Stutzman, F. (2006) ‘An evaluation of identity-sharing behaviour in social network communities‘, Proceedings of the 2006 iDMAa and IMS Code Conference, Oxford, Ohio.
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