Online social networks tend to be far larger than their real-life counterparts, but online users say they have about the same number of close friends as the real-life average person.

The ever expanding presence of online social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook is changing the average number of friends people have, with some users befriending literally thousands of others, Dr Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University says.

An average person has a social network of around 150 friends, ranging from very close friends to casual acquaintances, previous research by professor Robin Dunbar at the Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioural Ecology Research Group at Liverpool University has shown.

Costly Investments

Making friends can be costly, according to behavioural ecologists. While it might not be a very romantic view of friendship, making new friends involves an investment by committing time and energy to another person in the hope that they will provide reciprocal benefits in the future.

Dr Reader and his colleagues wondered whether online networks are somehow reducing the investment necessary to make new friends by lowering the perceived risk.

The online survey which forms the main part of their ongoing research has revealed that face-to-face encounters are, perhaps unsurprisingly, still the most important factor in close friendships.

Some 90 per cent of the online friends rated as ‘close’ have been met face-to-face, with the remaining 10 per cent likely to be friends of close friends, perceived as having many of the mutual friend’s attributes and therefore “low risk”.

Spotting Honesty Signals

According to Dr Reader, the importance placed on face-to-face encounters is a result of the necessity to base an investment on honest information.

The importance of honest signals is a fundamental concept in behavioural ecology.

For example, a female song bird invests in a mate based on the quality of his voice, as this is an honest signal indicating the fitness of the bird. In the same way, people choose friends based on their “quality”, and this can only be assessed when there are honest signals being given.

“It’s easier to spot honest signals when meeting someone face-to-face using facial and bodily cues,” explained Dr Reader, “whereas it’s harder to spot dishonest signals online.”

Evolutionarily speaking, the size of human social groups has always been limited by the ability of individuals within the group to communicate with each other.

While online social networks are very unlikely to ever replace real-life social networks, it is possible that their ability to aid communication may bring about a change in the size and structure of real-life social networks in the future.

Photo: mkhmarketing/flickr

For future updates, subscribe via Newsletter here or Twitter