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Do You Have Too Many Facebook Friends?
The average Facebook user now has about 338 friends, though the median number is quite a bit lower: 200. This means that while half of all Facebook users have 200 or fewer friends, many of the billion-plus Facebookers have quite a few more. In fact, 15 percent of users have friend lists topping 500. That’s a lot of virtual acquaintances, but consider that Facebook lets you keep piling on the friends until you hit a ceiling of 5000—about the population of Milton, Wisconsin.
For most of us, 5000 Facebook friends will sound like way too many. But where is the tipping point? According to Robin Dunbar, an Oxford University anthropologist who studies social networks, any grouping larger than about 150 starts to strain the cognitive capacity of the human brain. Basing this figure (dubbed “Dunbar’s Number” in the 1990s) on research into the brains and social habits of primates, Dunbar argues that we cannot effectively manage relationships with many hundreds of people. This goes for real-world friends as well as online relations:
"The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends, but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world," Dunbar told the London-based Sunday Times. "People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they're unlikely to be bigger than anyone else's."
This finding suggests that it doesn’t really matter how many friends you accept into your online communities: the number of people you actually interact with will stay constant. The phenomenon is a bit like having three dozen sweaters in your closet: chances are you probably have a half-dozen favorites that see the most daylight. But too many friends, like too many sweaters, can clutter up your life. Extraneous clothing takes up space in your bureau and extraneous friends clog your newsfeed. It may not seem like a major problem to encounter the odd kitten photo from a high-school friend you don’t quite remember when you log on to Facebook, but add up all those irrelevant kitten posts over number of friends and time spent hitting the down-arrow on your keyboard, and you start to see how your brain may be bombarded with tons of irrelevant information.
For Maria Konnikova, writing at the New Yorker, there may be a more significant downside:
With social media, we can easily keep up with the lives and interests of far more than a hundred and fifty people. But without investing the face-to-face time, we lack deeper connections to them, and the time we invest in superficial relationships comes at the expense of more profound ones. We may widen our network to two, three, or four hundred people that we see as friends, not just acquaintances, but keeping up an actual friendship requires resources. “The amount of social capital you have is pretty fixed,” Dunbar said. “It involves time investment. If you garner connections with more people, you end up distributing your fixed amount of social capital more thinly so the average capital per person is lower.” If we’re busy putting in the effort, however minimal, to “like” and comment and interact with an ever-widening network, we have less time and capacity left for our closer groups.
Konnikova notes Dunbar’s estimate that “we spend sixty per cent of our time” with close circles of friends and spend forty percent with our wider sphere of 150. “Social networks may be growing our base, and, in the process, reversing that balance,” she writes.
Is Facebook messing with our intimacy balance, as Konnikova suggests? If the site is taking us away from meaningful relationships with our family and closest friends and thrusting us into hours of diddling in an online “community” not worthy of the name, we really do have something to worry about. Some Facebook users may be trading face-to-face time for face-to-screen time, depriving themselves of the benefits of real human interaction: talking, touching, simply being with friends and loved ones.
I think these worries are a bit overblown. Yes, the digital age has probably pushed us too far toward interaction with devices. Yes, family dinners and walks in nature should be gadget-free zones to give people a chance to escape the pings and glare of our smartphones. But Facebook is not the only culprit drawing us to leer downward at the smartphone screen. Email is almost certainly the biggest one, haunting us day and night. (Clive Thompson has one interesting proposal to ease that burden.) General web browsing is another.
And Facebook is arguably the best place one might turn while thumbing around on a little screen, if you use it smartly. Think about it: the social networking site is useful in tons of ways that go well beyond scrolling through kitten or omelette photos. First, of course, Facebook lets you “like” a page—Big Think or The Economist, for example, or the American Civil Liberties Union. This means you’ll get updates in your newsfeed whenever these sites share a post or article. It’s (almost) like subscribing to a magazine or joining a social organization. Second, you can form your own groups and then communicate easily and seamlessly with a class or a bowling league or circles of cousins planning a family reunion. That makes communication with intimates easy and efficient (and much more effective than group emails and “reply to all”); these groups can facilitate better and more frequent face-to-face interactions in the real world. And yes, you can keep in some kind of touch with friends from many disparate moments and places in your life: the high school friend in Seattle and the grad school friend in Hattiesburg, the fellow traveler you met once in Switzerland and the former student teaching English in Costa Rica. You might not have the neural bandwith to do justice to all these online relationships, and you would be doing some violence to relationships with your family and face-to-face connections if you were to try, but when you want or need to make a connection, the conduit is right there waiting for you.
In the end, I'm not convinced that my in-person relationships are doomed by my 1100+ Facebook friends. Nor am I worried that my brain is overly taxed by having ten times the number of virtual contacts that the Dunbar Number specifies. Facebook isn't really a community, so it doesn't compete in a zero-sum game with church or school, family or grass-roots organization. Facebook is, more than anything, a series of resources to help organize and promote real-world social circles. So I'd say pile on the virtual friends, if you like. Just don't try to keep tabs on all of them all at once.
Image credit: Shutterstock
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.