Humans are extremely social creatures. Anthropologists maintain that our hypersocial nature has helped us become a uniquely dominant species. Now social media allows a large percentage of people to communicate effortlessly worldwide (large graph), something no other animal can do.

Yet despite running up hundreds of friends on Facebook and thousands of followers on Twitter, we are fooling ourselves, scientists say. We can really only maintain about 150 meaningful relationships at any time. Study after study confirms that most people have about five intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances (green bars). Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist now at the University of Oxford, who had showed this pattern convincingly in the 1990s, revisited his old conclusions in a recent study of several thousand Facebook users. He found that despite social media's explosion, our network of significant contacts still maxes out at around 150. This threshold is imposed by brain size and chemistry, as well as the time it takes to maintain meaningful relationships, Dunbar says. “The time you spend,” he adds, “is crucial.”

Credit: Jen Christiansen; Sources: International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report and Database (Internet use data); Pew Research Center (social media data); “Do Online Social Media Cut through the Constraints That Limit the Size of Offline Social Networks?” by R.I.M. Dunbar, in Royal Society Open Science, Vol. 3, Article No. 150292; January 2016 (Facebook friend survey data)