Blog Post

The Lies Social Networks Keep Telling Themselves

British developer Tom Hume recently went to hear a talk by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar — who famously posited that most humans can only handle around 150 social relationships — discuss his views on our ultramodern ways of staying in touch.

The session, titled “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?”, took a look through our lives and established that Dunbar’s number appears in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of places: in the military, in families and in business, for example. But aside from encouraging some fairly standard questions (does anyone really get value out of having 5,000 friends on Facebook?), it also prompted Hume to really examine what social services online are getting wrong.

As a result, he has outlined what he calls four “lies of social software:”  the set of assumptions almost every social service online makes, despite the fact that there is ample evidence that they’re wrong.

And they’re pretty bang on:

  • Your friends are equally important
  • Your friends are arranged into discrete groups
  • You can manage hundreds of friends
  • Friendship is reciprocal and equal

Almost every service offers you a way to make a connection with as many people as you want, and tools to help you categorize that connection into one of a few buckets. Many of us have started to adopt this way of managing our online friends, to try to eke some efficiency out of the system, but let’s be honest: Very few of us manage our lives in this way. We have siblings who are friends, and siblings who are not; we have co-workers we’d share intimate secrets with, and those we just can’t stand. We have friends who are closer to us than we want, and acquaintances who are further away than we’d like. In short, people are messy — and very few pieces of social software are able to reflect the complexity of real relationships.

When they do, they rarely get the credit they deserve. For example, I think one of Twitter’s great benefits was that it made the relationship between two users asymmetrical. I can follow anybody I like, but there is no real reason — besides a sort of social etiquette or the need for backchannel communication — for them to follow me back. That gives more power to celebrities and broadcasters, which can bring more new users in, and it also reduces the influence of spammers and makes the system more scaleable for different sorts of users. Your network can be pruned to be large, small, broadcast, narrowcast — precisely can choose who to follow without finding yourself overwhelmed.

Hume wonders whether, ultimately, we aren’t the ones holding things back:

Managing lists of friends is unpleasantly icky. I bet Google (s goog)  or Facebook could take away much of the pain of creating these lists by analysing my flow of communications. I bet they could notice and prompt me to confirm changes (“you’re emailing Freda a lot at the moment — working late or is she a friend outside work nowadays?”). Perhaps the challenge is less technical and more how to present this to a privacy-concerned public;

Context-aware sociability is definitely possible. For all that people deride Google’s social efforts, for example, the company has shown with Gmail’s priority inbox feature that it can use our patterns of communication to determine what is actually important to us.

But I don’t think fear over our privacy is why we don’t let these companies in. In fact, we’ve been complicit in helping them erase privacy in many senses. Instead, I wonder whether it’s just that the laws of social networking are simply based on what others have done before.

In many ways Facebook is not a great deal more advanced than it was when SixDegrees and LiveJournal helped set the standard: and it still, by and large, subscribes to these same mistakes about how human relationships work.

Is it something that will ever be fixed?

18 Responses to “The Lies Social Networks Keep Telling Themselves”

  1. William Hurley

    I think there’s a deep truth to the “150” rule. That social networking platforms simply disregard the underlying cognitive/neurophysiological facts of this rule reveals telling facts about those platform operators/service(s) providers.

    The truth is that they’re more than allergic to there being a “hard” cap on the number of connections (a.k.a. friends, colleagues,…) one can have and/or manage because it is the quantification of connections that is their selling point to their real customers – being advertisers, law enforcement and government agencies.

    Never forget, you are the product that FaceBook, LinkedIn, YouTube and other such platforms sells to their real customers. As such, a cognitive limit on the “products'” extensibility is and will be studiously ignored by those in the business of making money off of your connectability.

  2. Most people I know who have 3,000 plus friends, have had that many friends to fight the privacy locks. Many people try to block out their pictures and wall posts. But if you become friends with those people, then most likely you have access to everything. The more friends you have; the easier it becomes to “stalk people on Facebook.”

  3. Social network let people communicate with each other.I personally think that its the responsibility of the person who add people in his/her list to manage it.These sites let us have a platform to communicate and keep in touch with people we want to keep in touch with.
    No social network ask its user to add A minimum number of people to be part of that site.Then why people have to add hundred of barely known and sometimes unknown people in their friends list?
    Social sites are just like inviting people to your place and now its up to you how you handle the sitting arrangement.As Mark point out about arrangement of people list on his site Ayloo according to their relationship with other people.That may be a good idea but don’t you think this way you are making more division instead of letting people interact with other through the mutual friends concept?

    • Naveen,

      Right now on Ayloo people can still choose to be mutual friends or not, but it’s not perquisite to having someone as a contact. People can still interact through the mutual contacts or friends model in much the same way. You are notified when someone adds you then it’s up to you whether or not you want to interact with that person further. The only difference is that unlike say Facebook you don’t have to feel bad not adding someone you do know, but may not want to communicate with online.

  4. Si Chen

    Nice article. It seems that everybody, celebrity or not, is using social networks to broadcast things about themselves, and a lot of that broadcasting is business driven. Intense interaction is still with email, chat, and phone. But would you want Facebook or google to use your phone or email log to figure out who your real friends are?

    • I agree completely. It seems like major social networks have turned into more of a promotion and broadcast system than a way of communicating with people on a personal level. I should be able to choose who my real friends are and how I want to interact with them.

  5. Paul Adams (former Googler, now at Facebook) recently gave a very compelling presentation on this topic. Here is the link to his slides, all 120 of them! ( Especially important takeaways for marketers are on pp. 105 and 111-120, where he highlights the importance of identifying and leveraging influencers and notes the potential to rapidly scale (through what is sometimes called Earned, e.g., Social Media). We will examine these issues and opportunities on my M-Commerce panel next week at Social-Loco (

    Dr. Phil Hendrix, immr and GigaOm Pro analyst

    Paul Adams, How Your Customers’ Social Circles Influence What They Buy, What They Do and Where They Go (; see p. 105, especially, and 111 – 120).

  6. At Zenergo, launching in May, we segment your social circles by your activities. Your wine-tasting activity friends are separate from your jogging friends or your workgroup friends or your family friends. Of course, some people will be in several of your friendship circles.

    You can form activity groups and create activity events, and make them as public or as private as you wish. Comments (‘Wall’) posts are specific to each group or event.

    This also eliminates the “actively managing relationships” challenge because relationships naturally fall into the activity buckets as you create them, so no overall management is needed.

    Check it out: is live now (free registration).

  7. I like the Livejournal method most – multiple sets of friends that overlap with each other.

    So I can have “Friends”, “American Friends”, “People that are interested in pictures of cats”, “Family”, etc. and then read or post any combination of them that I like.

  8. Or perhaps the assumption being made by social networks is that simplicity is more important than accuracy: the network simply keeps track of a connection, without hassling the user about the nature of the connection.

    • Management of relationships on can be made easy and simple if it’s central to the entire user experience. If sites such as Facebook can figure out a way to make games, apps, deals, questions, videos, photos, etc “simple” then why not relationships?

    • Bobbie Johnson

      In fairness, Facebook does push and pull people up your news feed as you interact with them more. In the long term, I don’t think we have to settle for a simple “no hassle=simple” model… and today’s models will look crude.

      • That is true, but that seems to be based on how much you interact with them which could mean a whole host of things. For example, it could mean that person and you chat online a lot and say nothing about the actual relationship you have with them. I think it goes deeper and you have to actually address not only how much, but what kind and how personal is the content being shared between people to determine their relationship (and actually do something useful about it).

        I agree that we don’t have to settle for a simple “no hassle=simple” model, but I’m not so sure that it’s as far away as you’re thinking. As I mentioned in another comment, I’m a co-founder of Ayloo, a social network which addresses these issues. However, we’re not the only ones who have realized that there’s something missing from current social networking (or online communication in general) and decided to take action. I am excited to see how the future of online communication unfolds.

  9. Interesting article. I agree with this issues, however, I think managing a list of friends is only “icky” on current social networks, because the user experience for doing so has been extremely neglected. With the focus of these networks it makes complete sense why they wouldn’t spend too much time on that aspect of social networking. When your ideology is focused around openness then why would you want people to organize or separate their friends?

    I’m a co-founder of a social network that is addressing and attempting to solve all of the issues mentioned here. Friendships are asymmetrical as mentioned, contacts are arranged into multiple lists (primary social groups) and groups (secondary social groups), and the number of contacts is unlimited but you can filter and view content from who you care about. Privacy is also at the core of the site and we’re much more focused on conversations rather than snippets of information or “status updates.”

    If you’re interested feel free to sign up for a beta invite or check out the FAQ. It’s called Ayloo (

  10. We’ve heard these critiques before. I think what we get wrong in the analysis is the belief that people really think they are actively managing all these relationships. Being connected does not mean an active relationship. Having 150 channels on cable doesn’t imply watching all 150 shows. But what it does prvide is an “active” portal that can be monitored and perused. Maybe its the use of the term “friend” and the implication of an active relationship that frustrates the analysts. Social networks get activity right — like a crowded market with lots of vendors with interesting booths vying for attention and sales. You can walk through and enjoy it without ever buying anything. You can enjoy a social network without managning active relationships…

    • David Castiglioni

      Interesting analogy with the market. I believe the “social” dynamic is different when you actually have to leave your house. Going and browsing thru a market is a social activity. Browsing along Facebook pages etc..anonymously seems like stalking to me. I would think the whole thing produces a very insular and very unhealthy, narcissistic approach to friends and family. But then I guess that is what we are as a society surprised I should not be. But then what do Iknow.