Facebook Friends Are Fake Friends, Study Finds

Facebook friends fake psychology oxford research
A study has shown that on average only five contacts on the social network can be considered real-life friends. Dado Ruvic/ Reuters

Facebook has turned the word "friend" into a verb, but just because you've friended someone on Facebook does that make them your friend in real life? Not according to a study that found almost all Facebook friends are entirely fake.

Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, conducted research into how Facebook friendship correlates with real-life friendship. Of the 150 Facebook friends the average user has, Dunbar found that only 15 could be counted as actual friends and only five as close friends.

"There is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome," the study found. "In practical terms, it may reflect the fact that real (as opposed to casual) relationships require at least occasional face-to-face interaction to maintain them."

Facebook friends study oxford
Distribution of (a) support clique size and (b) sympathy group size. On average, less than five people from someone’s Facebook contacts are considered close friends, while less than 15 can be counted as friends that have sympathy for the Facebook user. Robin Dunbar/ Oxford University

Rather than increasing people's social circles, Dunbar suggests Facebook and other social media may function to prevent friendships "decaying" over time.

"Friendships, in particular, have a natural decay rate in the absence of contact, and social media may well function to slow down the rate of decay," Dunbar wrote. "However, that alone may not be sufficient to prevent friendships eventually dying naturally if they are not occasionally reinforced by face-to-face interaction."

[Related: Turkey's Erdogan Is Europe's Most Popular Leader on Facebook]

One person who has put the "Facebook friend" concept to the test is photographer Tanja Hollander. Between 2010 and 2015, Hollander set about tracking down and photographing all of her Facebook contacts.

Despite never having met many of them in real life, Hollander found that she was welcomed into 95 percent of the homes of her 600 social media connections. Almost three-quarters even offered her a meal or a place to stay for the night or weekend.

"This project is an exploration of friendships, the effects of social networks, the intimate places we call home and the communities in which we live," Hollander wrote in her Facebook Portrait Project blog.

"I have learned about human kindness and compassion. I continue to be surprised by the number of people, especially (the real-life) total strangers, who have opened their homes to me—offering me a place to stay, sharing their lives, their stories and their families while allowing me to document it all."