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How Many Friends is Too Many?

Offline, I have a network of under 50 people that I interact on a regular basis as friends. But online, the concept of “friend” is completely different. On Facebook I have nearer to 250 friends, on Twitter I have just over 300 followers. That’s just a blip compared to how many friends some of the true power users on those services have, but it brings to mind the question of how many friends is too many? Surely, the answer varies person-to-person, but there have to be some universal upper limits to the concept of “friendship.”

Ryan Carson of app developer Carsonified wrote yesterday that 3,000 followers on Twitter was too many for him. The problem, according to Carson, is that with so many followers every tweet he sends out generates about 4 @ replies. Replying in kind to those replies ends up littering his feed with one-sided conversations that most of his followers can’t possibly, well, follow.

“Microblogging services like Twitter break down if you have more than 100 followers,” wrote Carson. “People like Jason Calacanis might disagree, but I’d argue that by him following 26,672 people he’s obviously not actually interested in what those people are doing (nor would it be possible to actually interact meaningfully with them).”

But why limit it to microblogging — can we really keep up with thousands of “friends” on any social network? Could we do it in offline life?

Research by Robin Dunbar indicates that 100 to 150 is the approximate natural group size in which everyone can really know everyone else. “Human beings ought to live in groups of around 150 people, judging from the logarithm of our brain size; and sure enough, studies of hunter-gatherer groups, military units, and city dwellers’ address books suggest that 100 to 150 is the natural group size within which people can know just about everyone directly,” writes Jonathan Haidt in the book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” drawing on research by Dunbar.

Last summer, we asked readers how many Facebook friends they had. The vast majority had under 500, and 45% had under 100. It might be that most people naturally limit the number of friends on a service to a group that they can realistically manage. Most people don’t have the time to actively manage a network of a thousand or more friends, anyway.

Consider this and let us know in the comments: How many friends do you have at your favorite social network? How many of those people do you have regular, meaningful interactions with? Does there appear to be an upper limit to how many online relationships you can manage?

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