MIDWAY: Fictitious friends

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace do not help you make more genuine close friends, according to a recent survey. Although social networking on the internet helps people to collect hundreds or even thousands of acquaintances, the researchers believe that face to face contact is nearly always necessary to form truly close friendships.

“Although the numbers of friends people have on these sites can be massive, the actual number of close friends is approximately the same in the face to face real world,” said psychologist Will Reader, from Sheffield Hallam University.

Social networking websites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace have taken off rapidly in recent years. Facebook has expanded to more than 34 million users worldwide. MySpace has more than 200 million users. Previous research has suggested that a person’s friendship group consists of around 150 people, with five very close friends but larger number of people whom we keep in touch less regularly. This figure is so consistent that scientists have suggested it is determined by the cognitive constraints of keeping up with large numbers of people. But Dr Reader and his team have found that social networking sites do allow people to stretch this figure.

The team asked more than 200 people to fill in questionnaires about their online networking, asking for example how many online friends they had, how many of these were close friends and how many they had met face to face. The team found that although the sites allowed contact with hundreds of acquaintances, as with conventional friendship networks, people tend to have around five close friends.

“People see face to face contact as being absolutely imperative in forming close friendships,” added Dr Reader. “What social network sites can do is decrease the cost of maintaining and forming these social networks because we can post information to multiple people,” he said.

To develop a real friendship we need to see that the other person is trustworthy, said Dr Reader. “What we need is to be sure that a person is really going to invest in us, is really going to be there for us when we need them... It’s very easy to be deceptive on the internet.”