When I talk about how how social networks are structured, certain things always resonate with people. One of these is that although the average Facebook user has 130 friends, they only communicate directly with four of those people in any given week. Direct communication includes likes and comments on their posts, posts on their wall, chat conversations, video calls, and private messages.
People I talk to are always surprised at how low the number is – only four people per week, and only six people per month. What’s more, the majority of people in these small groups remains consistent from week to week – for example, our partner, our closest friends and family. Changes in people from week to week is usually posting a like or comment with a much weaker tie, for example seeing someone we went to school with get married, run a marathon, or have a baby.
When telling this story, I usually gloss over an important related fact. Although the average Facebook user is only communicating directly with four of their 130 friends in any given week, they are consuming content from a much larger number of those people. After all, over 50% of active Facebook users come back every day. If you include consuming updates from people as communication, then people are interacting with many more than four, but much of the communication is asymmetrical in nature. I may not communicate directly with you, but I do keep up with what’s going on in your life.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. In years gone by, we kept up to date through word of mouth – chatting with people in our town or village as we went about daily life. We spoke to a small number of people regularly, and because approximately 70% of conversations are about other people, we learned a lot about many others through interacting with a few. We gossiped, because gossip helps us understand how others behave, and helps define social norms. Many of the same motivations exist in consumption of others’ updates online.