Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, undertook a study to find out the connection between whether people have lots of Facebook friends and real friends.
He found that there was very little correlation between having friends on social networks and actually being able to depend on them, or even talking to them regularly.
The average person studied had around 150 Facebook friends. But only about 14 of them would express sympathy in the event of anything going wrong…
Those numbers are mostly similar to how friendships work in real life, the research said. But the huge number of supposed friends on a friend list means that people can be tricked into thinking that they might have more close friends.
The last paragraph seems key: online or offline, people have a relatively small number of close relationships. As the saying goes, you learn who your friends are in times of trouble. Simply having a connection to someone – whether knowing them as an acquaintance or friending them on social media – is at a different level than having regular contact or providing mutual support. Using the words “real” and “fake” friends tries to get at that but it would be better to use terms close friend, acquaintance, family member, or other terms to denote the closeness of the relationship. Of course, when Facebook chose to use the term friends for everyone you link to on Facebook, this was very intentional and an attempt to prompt more connections and openness.
The Dunbar here is the same researcher behind Dunbar’s number that suggests humans can have around 150 maximum stable relationships.