I finally read The Economist article on Facebook and the size of social networks. The main point of the article is that the average number of Facebook friends is close to the Dunbar number of 150; and that most people actively interact on Facebook with far fewer people than that (less than 20, however you measure it). Contrary to popular opinion, online social networks don’t appear to increase the size of one’s social network. The big conclusion of the Economist article is that:
What mainly goes up, therefore, is not the core network but the number of casual contacts that people track more passively…Put differently, people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a polling organisation.
What this ignores is the fact that the outer tier of acquaintances represent the “weak ties” that sociologist Mark Granovetter’s work has shown to be most valuable in Getting a Job, and other positive outcomes for individuals and social groups:
weak ties, often denounced as generative of alienation (Wirth 1938) are here seen as indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their integration into communities.
Online social networks, like Facebook, expose our weak ties (as described in Social Networking in Plain English) to us. They also make the weak ties more accessible and more easily activated.
Those who denigrate Facebook users for having hundreds of “fake friends” are really missing the point.