I didn’t know her, but she said she lived in Newark, Del. (where I was raised and went to university) and she wanted to be my friend on Facebook. So I did what many of us do and accepted her friend request.
Turns out she was looking for a good time. I like a good time too, but only with people I know.
Which made me wonder… How well do we really know our Facebook friends? If you’re like me or the average Facebook user, the answer may be what you’ve long suspected — not very well.
In the real world, if I show you a picture of one of your friends, chances are pretty good that you’ll be able to tell me their name. How about if I do that on Facebook?
We know our friends in real life. They are the people we hang out regularly with, have had numerous shared experiences, and are the ones we turn to in times of need or to bend an ear. Before Facebook, everyone knew and understood what a friendship entailed.
Then Facebook came along and bastardized a well-known term for its own marketing efforts. Suddenly co-workers — whom we were friendly with, but just not friends — became our Facebook friends. Even our boss wanted in on the action. And of course, our children. How could we not “friend” them too?
Surprisingly, however, on Facebook many people also “friend” people they don’t even know. And this is where the whole social networking thing kind of falls apart.
Croom et al. (2016) decided to look at the phenomenon of Facebook friends to determine how many of these people do we really know?
When asked directly how many of their Facebook friends were strangers who they did not know in the real world, estimates ranged from 4% (Manago et al., 2012) to 15% (Chou & Edge, 2012) implying participants knew between 85% and 96% of their Facebook friends in the real world. Based on that, it is safe to assume that college students should personally know at least 85% of their friends and thus should be able to name them with high accuracy.
So we should know at least 85 percent of the people who are our friends on Facebook, right?
The researchers ended up recruiting more than 4,000 people to play their online game, “What’s Her Face(book),” which ended up producing 174,615 guesses of the name of one of their Facebook friends. While it started off as a university study of college students, media outlets spread the word about the study, resulting in a much more diverse sample of adults than the researchers had originally intended.
The game was easy. Participants in the study were shown pictures of their friends and asked to name them in 90-second rounds. Most people played the game one to four times (you could play it as often as you’d like).
You Don’t Your Own Friends’ Names!
Instead of the 85 percent or better of their friends that the researchers thought participants would be able to correctly identify, the researchers found that only 72.7 percent of their guesses were correct. That means that one out of four people we’re friends with on Facebook we don’t actually know well enough to name.
Women were more likely to guess their female friends’ names correctly than their male friends. Men were more likely to guess their male friends’ names correctly than their female friends.
Of course, the more friends Facebook users have, the less well they did on this game. Those who had under 317 friends did best, correctly guessing between 77 (men) and 83 (women) percent of their friends’ names. If they had more than 840 friends, their ability to correctly guess plummeted to just above 64 percent.
The researchers end with this wry statement:
The lower than predicted rate of success at naming friends suggest that the definition of a “friend” must, at this time, be flexible.
If you cannot name 30% of those who you claim as friends then it is likely that they do not fit any of the types of social capita — bonding, maintaining and bridging — seen in studies of examining online social capital.
Indeed, the use of the word “friend” on Facebook has always been loose. What this study demonstrates is that somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of those we’ve friended on Facebook don’t meet the traditional definition of friendship. They, therefore, may not be as readily relied on for the emotional and intellectual needs we typically turn to friends for.
I’ll try and remember that the next time a young woman stranger from my old hometown sends me a friend request out of the blue.
Croom, C., Gross, B., Rosen, L.D., & Rosen, B. (2016). What’s Her Face(book)? How many of their Facebook “friends” can college students actually identify? Computers in Human Behavior. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.015