Most Facebook friends aren't really your friends after all
Users add strangers as friends to compete in popularity stakes
By DAVID DERBYSHIRE - More by this author »
Last updated at 18:00pm on 10th September 2007 Comments
They are the people you know well enough to smile at, but would be hard pressed to name.
For generations, the nodding acquaintance has played a special part in Britain's more reserved culture.
There had been fears that the phenomenon was a dying breed.
After all, in a world where people spend every spare moment outdoors plugged into an iPod or glued to a mobile phone there is little time for social chit chat with strangers.
But according to a new study, the growth of websites like Facebook and Myspace means people now have record numbers of occasional friends.
Dr Will Reader, of Sheffield Hallam University, found that the typical “social networking” user now lists at least 150 “friends” on their home page.
His research, based on interviews with around 200 users, found that only a handful are genuine friends.
The rest are the online equivalent of friendly faces on a train or high street.
Social networking sites are the fastest growing internet phenomenon.
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Facebook has reintroduced 'nodding acquaintances' to a new generation
Facebook now has four million users in Britain – compared to 500,000 a year ago.
The sites allow people to display information about themselves, their latest photographs, links to favourite websites, gossip, video clips and music with other people.
The information can be made available to anyone – or just to selected friends. In order to make a friend on Facebook, the user sends a message to their target.
He or she can then choose whether to reciprocate.
On other sites, friends can be added unilaterally.
Although fans of social networking websites say they encourage genuine relationships, Dr Reader found that people who use the sites tend to have around five close friends – the same number as people who stay away from the internet.
“People find that face to face communication is essential if they are going to be friends,” he told the British Association science festival in York yesterday.
“It is very easy to be deceptive if you cannot see or hear someone who are communicating with.”
However, the sites encourage people to have more acquaintances – the sort of people you might nod to in the street, he said.
“It seems that the number of weak friends does go up – the number of these virtual nodding types of friendship is changing,” he said.
Most of its users are in their teens or 20s, although numbers of older people using the site is growing.
Stephen Fry and Ian Hislop are among the more mature Facebook users.
Within a couple of weeks of signing up, Fry was deluged with 150 requests a day, and was forced to hide his page from public view.
Social networking sites are also fuelling a new hobby of people collecting. Where once people collected stamps, coins and butterflies, they now rack up thousands of names they claim are “friends”, the conference was told.
Others are using software to trawl the internet for new names to add to their online collections.
The fashion has been triggered by sites like Facebook which allow users to post personal information and messages on webpage which they can share with online “friends”.
The list of friends is usually available for all to see – and has become a badge of online credibility for some
Some have thousands, while a handful of celebrities – such as the singer Lilly Allen – have Myspace pages containing nearly 400,000.
“Some people collect friends like boys collect Airfix models”, he said.
“It's not uncommon to see sites with 1,000 friends. Most are weak friends, while some are trophy friends. Everyone is friends with Lily Allen.”