Your friends are more popular than you

Scott Feld’s clever 1991 paper, why your friends have more friends than you do,  shows that if individuals compare themselves with their friends, it is likely that most of them will feel relatively inadequate.

This is rooted in mathematics, and is because you are more likely to be friends with those who have many friends than with people who have few friends.  At the limit, if someone is friends with everyone, then they are friends with you, (and more popular than you); People with just 1 friend are probably not your friend (though they are –  hopefully! – less popular than you. But they’re not showing up in your data). Mathematically, the mean number of friends of friends is greater than the mean number of friends of individuals.

But not only are you less popular than your friends, the ones you do have aren’t really paying attention. This guy decided to regularly alter his Facebook profile so it appeared to be his birthday 3 times in one month (his real birthday was actually 6 months earlier). He got 119 birthday wishes on the first occasion, reducing to 71 on the 3rd fake birthday 3 weeks later. Here’s a graph I made:

Graph of number of facebook birthday messages received

Dunbar’s number is often touted in connection with numbers of Facebook friends, with a figure of 150, but it’s not really applicable. I have more than that, and most of my friends have more than me I’ve noticed (but that’s ok, see above!). His research was into physical group sizes, in particular groups that are highly incentivized to stay together (e.g., a subsistence village, a military troop, a cartload of chimpanzees). He ran a regression between the average group size to the brain sizes of different primates and obtained a forecast of 148 for humans.

It’s fair to say that one’s collection of Facebook friends is not a group that is incentivized to stay together physically, and as the 3-birthdays-a-month guy concludes:

It’s one thing to remember your friend’s birthday because you took him out a decade ago for his drunken 21stbirthday debauch. It’s much lamer to “remember” your friend’s birthday because Facebook told you to. A significant number of Facebookers clearly use the service without sentiment, attempting to build social capital—undeserved social capital—with birthday greetings that they haven’t thought about based on birthday memories of you that they don’t actually have.

And yet my three-birthday July was not completely demoralizing. An encouraging number of my friends—many of them my actual friends—were so socially alert that they cottoned on to my manipulation of the Facebook birthday system.