Opinion: Dunbar’s Number and the Power of Meaningless Friends

Robin Dunbar in a recent New York Times Op-Ed claimed that “most of us can maintain only around 150 meaningful relationships.” This is known as Dunbar’s number. According to this hypothesis and assuming all 150 meaningful relationships I maintain are in my list of Facebook friends, then I have 343 “meaningless” Facebook friends (I have 493 friends for those of you who, like me, are not good at air math). This is probably an underestimation – most likely close to 450 of my approximately 500 friends are “meaningless.” Yet in this majority lies the power of social media.

Let’s say I’m planning a trip to New Zealand and I do not know any Kiwis that I can call up to get the inside scoop. I can go old school and call/email/telegraph my 150 meaningful relationships and spend several hours trying to find out if someone has been to New Zealand. Or I can post a quick Facebook status update broadcasting my trip. Hopefully one of my 450 “meaningless” friends from my Facebook realm will pick up the update and provide me with useful information. Maybe my “meaningless” friend from Australia will hook me up with some good places to eat and drink and maybe even a place to crash. If unsuccessful, I will be left with a few “meaningless” good wishes, jealous remarks, and funny comments on my wall. Still, considering I updated my status from my Smartphone during the lunch break it was definitely worth the shot.

During lunch I was also thinking about pursuing a Certificate in Marketing from a local college I like. A quick search through my Facebook contacts and I find that that guy I met at that cocktail party back in that now “meaningless” friend’s apartment went to that school I’m considering. Hey, shoot him a quick message and cross fingers for a response. None of my 150 meaningful friends went to that school. On second thought, one actually did but he dropped out during the first semester to pursue his rock star dreams so, even though he represents a meaningful relationship in my life, in this case I would rather talk to the “meaningless” guy who actually graduated.

And that reminds me of that girl who constantly sends me spam through Facebook advertising her new single or her next gig at some bar in Hollywood. So annoying! Delete her! Oh wait, she is friends with my roommate (of course my roommate is one of my meaningful friends). So I can’t delete her. Next thing I know I will be chastised for being unsupportive of struggling, yet talented artists. Ok, I’ll go to her next show and pay the $20 cover. Damn me for being one of her “meaningless” friends.

Fernando Elizalde


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