We communicate with four, but consume from many more.

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.

9 comments

  1. Hi Paul, nice insight.

    When is a facebook user labeled as “active”?

    All the best,
    Michael

  2. This makes me think of Dunber’s Number, people can’t maintain active and stable relationship with more than 120 people. Even with the modern technology and social media service, people can hardly maintain a Circle of more than 150 people.

    Hence, when I read the number, 4 and 6, I am not really surprised.

    Too much information -> Filter the lesser
    Too big a friend list -> Create a core Circle

  3. Would people be likely to go beyond these sorts of numbers if they could see more clearly where to best expend their energy?

    It’s tempting to think all this is hard wired – but we don’t really know for sure. Many of the factors circumscribing the possibilities of human socialisation have been external (economic factors, for instance) – and the removal of those constraints have led to incredible changes in what humans are able to achieve.

    It may be that we just haven’t yet found the constraints leading to people to stick to the small number cited by Paul.

    I actually built an application to test this concept if anyone is interested in having a play with it. (needs a webkit browser).

  4. To me this phenomenon is more than the act of gossip, it is necessary that people must be exposed, even though only the people around will communicate.

  5. this may think about gossip girl, the core of gossip is to learn the world around us

  6. Paul, we can try to explain the observed asymmetry in communication in different ways, e.g.:

    1) Our online networks reflect the way we stay close to just a handful of people in the offline world.
    2) Only a small number of people in our networks produce content that is sufficiently engaging.

    Would you expect explanation (1) to be less relevant for social networks that are explicitly asymmetric (i.e. Twitter)? How real is the “consumption” in symmetric networks like Facebook? How much of that “consumption” is just filtering out noise?

    • It gets across concepts similar with the speech you made in UPA2011.
      Thank you for making it easy to understand.
      Social relations will offer us a lot and we can benefit from having a good knowledge of it.

  7. [...] sets of contacts or acquaintances, most persons maintain only a small number of close friends.  A recent analysis of Facebook data found: although the average Facebook user has 130 friends, they only communicate directly with four [...]

  8. “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.”

    Do you include simply scrolling past an update in the News Feed as an act of consumption? Or an item loading in the News Feed — maybe the user doesn’t even scroll so that it appears above the fold. At a gut level, I agree that we probably consume from a wider group of people than the small 4-6 person group that we communicate directly with, but there’s not really a way to measure whether or not someone has read an item in the Feed, right?