Social Media Hasn’t Enabled Us To ‘Scale’ Friend Capacity, Oxford Study Suggests

dunbar's number 2014 study

The illusion social media presents of streamlining friendships may have something to it — allowing us to pare down on rote announcements, invites or shares — but it hasn’t increased our capacity to connect meaningfully on a larger scale, new research out of Oxford indicates.

Social media has often been analyzed in regards to its potential to increase our connectivity in terms of binary units of “closeness.” That is to say, before social media, we physically lacked the capability to have hundreds of friends.

So now that there is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine, can we do more friend stuff? Not as such, the study suggests.

Researchers tracked “changes in the communication networks of 24 students in the UK over 18 months” as they transitioned in their lives — for instance, from uni to career. The university explains:

“At the beginning of the study, researchers ‘ranked’ members of each participant’s social network (friends and family) according to emotional closeness. They discovered that, in all cases, a small number of top-ranked, emotionally close people received a disproportionately large fraction of calls.”

area closed

The release adds that individual communication styles were a factor in the data, saying:

“Within this general pattern, however, there was clear individual-level variation. Each participant had a characteristic ‘social signature’ that depicted their particular way of allocating communication across the members of their social network.”

Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford Professor Robin Dunbar commented:

“As new network members are added, some old network members are either replaced or receive fewer calls … This is probably due to a combination of limited time available for communication and the great cognitive and emotional effort required to sustain close relationships.”


“It seems that individuals’ patterns of communication are so prescribed that even the efficiencies provided by some forms of digital communication (in this case, mobile phones) are insufficient to alter them.”

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because of the “Dunbar’s number” theory often discussed in relation to social media and social capacity.

Kim LaCapria

Kim LaCapria is a social media enthusiast, long-time writer and beauty and lifestyle industry expert. She covers a wide range of social media topics, with a particular interest in style-related apps and services. When not working, Kim can be found on Facebook and Pinterest, skating, and sneaking off to Spa Castle.


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