The Hard Facts: The Facebook-IRL Correlation

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Researchers at University College London… showed that the more Facebook friends a person has, the more ‘real-world’ friends they are likely to have.” (“Number of Facebook Friends Linked to Size of Brain Regions” ; Sciencedaily.com 10/26/2011)

This might seem so obvious it doesn’t even count as research. That was my first thought. But then I remembered that conversation I had with a social psychologist and the author of the book Loneliness, John Cacioppo, in which he told me that often the loneliest people are the ones with 2,000 Facebook friends. They hide behind the computer, he said, caught up in their virtual life at the expense of going out into the world and connecting with people.

I’m curious, also, how these researchers qualified “real-world friends.” What was the criteria? As I mentioned yesterday, I think there should be a litmus test here. Because, to me, a lot of Facebook friends means you know a lot of people. Not necessarily that you’re friends with a lot of them.

Wait a minute, I just found that information. (Amazing what happens when you read to the end of an article.) “The UCL researchers asked their volunteers questions such as ‘How many people would send a text message to you marking a celebratory event (e.g. birthday, new job, etc.)?’, ‘What is the total number of friends in your phonebook?’ and ‘How many friends have you kept from school and university that you could have a friendly conversation with now?’ The responses suggest that the size of their online networks also related to the size of their real world networks.”

I think those are decent markers of friendship, though I could have a friendly conversation with plenty of people who don’t qualify as friends.

The takeaway from their research, the study authors say, is to that “most Facebook users use the site to support their existing social relationships, maintaining or reinforcing these friendships, rather than just creating networks of entirely new, virtual friends.”

True, but I think Cacioppo has a point too. Some users use the site to appear connected to a thousand people they’ve met only once or twice, thereby masking loneliness.

So here’s my assertion: Having more real-life friends will certainly mean you have more Facebook friends. But the opposite is not necessarily true–having more Facebook friends doesn’t necessarily mean you have more real-life friends.

Do you agree with my oh-so-scientific analysis?

4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Hard Facts: The Facebook-IRL Correlation

  1. niobeway

    I don’t think the questions they asked really assess whether you have any REAL friends. Why didn’t they ask if people have friends with whom they could talk about serious problems or concerns? That’s the type of friends the author of Loneliness is referring to. Those with high numbers of facebook friends may look well connected but the reality is that they have few friends with whom to share secrets. The number of phone numbers on my cell phone, by the way, has nothing to do with my number of real friends nor does the number of my school or university friends I “could” have a friendly conversation with. If you find any research linking the number of facebook friends with the number of genuine friendships, I would be interested in hearing about it.

  2. Agree with you that I can have a friendly conversation with almost anyone (!) but I wouldn’t call those people friends. I don’t even want to be FB friends with some of those🙂

    I do agree with your last point too.

    But actually what I really need to do (one day when I have time!) is sort out my FB friends into family (very few – I don’t want them to know what I’m up to :)), real friends who would email/ sms/ visit and the acquaintances, and then people I went to school with, worked with in the past or currently work with

  3. San

    I think the question should be ask what people use FB for…. I, for one, use it to improve/support my existing relationships (yes, because a lot of my friends and family live far away), but I also use it (with giving limited access) as an online address book for people, that I know from school/college, but that I don’t usually interact with. FB (and other social media outlets) make it easier to stay connected this way, because email address change and phone numbers change, but FB always gives you a platform to contact someone if you want to/need to.

    I do agree with your statement in general, though.

  4. nancy in ak

    I just found your blog while googling Facebook and friendship issues and I wonder what you make of this – I enjoy FB and I have been actively using it for about 2 years. I am married with children. I have met some new local acquaintances through other friends and school activities. We have a lot in common and they friended me on FB. I was happy and thought of this as a way to get to know them better. We interact a lot on FB. however, every time, I have reached out and invited them to do something in real life, they are busy or just don’t respond. It is starting to hurt my feelings. a lot. I haven’t invited them to a lot of events, but a few, just so they would know that I would like to become friends “in real life.” I am a friendly person. Now, I just defriended about 3 women because it has been making me very sad over the past two years that these women are very friendly on FB and live locally and we have a lot in common, but they just don’t seem to want to be friends in real life. what do you think? I wasn’t going to defriend them but after such a long time and several invites on my part, I just felt sad that I was not worthy of a real friendship.

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