Your social world is basically structured like an onion, and the broad ability for changes and shifts isn’t really there

Felix Reed-Tsochas of Oxford University (video of him speaking embedded above) and five other academics have a new paper out which uses longer-term observational research on how we develop, and shift, our social circles over time. There’s a good write-up in The Atlantic Cities, and the whole thing is kind of breathlessly interesting (I mean that in a non-sarcastic way). The idea is: the researchers tracked 24 students who were exiting HS and entering either (a) the work force or (b) college. So, by definition, they were at a point where certain relationships were going to become more distant, and new ones would be created. They were given pre-paid cell phones to track their communications over 18 months, and, well — Reed-Tsochas even equates it to an onion:

“From my perspective, there’s a bunch of really close friends – these are the people who will drop everything, and rush to me if I’m in an emergency. That’s the inner layer of the onion. The next layer is the really close friends, but they’re not quite in that category. Then maybe there are looser friends.”

The idea of “rings” of friends going outward is extremely popular when planning weddings (I know; I did this just last year).

But there’s more interesting stuff from this survey — for example, there’s a “long tail” on most of your relationship onions, which would be acquaintances. (One wonders if this tail is longer because of social media, or shorter because of it.) Then, there’s this: people tend to have a consistent number in their inner circle over time, but the actual people aren’t always the same. To quote Reed-Tsochas:

“Typically, let’s say I’m the kind of guy who has four really close friends at the beginning of the study. I will still have four close friends at the end of the study, but these are not necessarily the same four close friends.”

Hmm. So the base premise of a movie like Bridesmaids — that one friend is replacing you with someone else — is ACTUALLY TRUE, because if you roll up this data (and granted, it’s 24 people in Europe) to the broader population, the idea is that for you to add someone to your inner circle, someone else has to fade away. Odd, right? You can’t go from having one best friend to having eight, which might make things weird if you end up marrying a girl/guy with a lot of friends and you both want the altar to balance aesthetically.

As for what I was saying above about the “long tail” of this study and social media, here again is Reed-Tsochas:

“It isn’t exactly that the computer has just done some amazing transformation of what humans are capable of doing socially, and that person now genuinely has 1,000 bosom-buddy friends.”

Ah, OK — so social media really is all about the long tail. Most of your FB friends/followers/what have you come from the acquaintance pool, not the core pool.

I guess the bottom line is that no matter how you slice it, you’ll only really ever have a handful of close friends. I think this is interesting in terms of how you move through life — I used to think, from late elementary into immediately post college, that it would be possible to have a huge-ass crew of people you consider yourself “close” with. I don’t feel that way anymore. I think that one way some people organize it (which is what I do, in a way) is to group people together as a cluster, and then say you’re close with said cluster — but maybe not with every individual in the cluster. This happens a lot when your friends start marrying in bunches and you’re seeing the same general groups 3-4 times a year (which could be equivalent to how often you’re seeing your parents at that time of your life). This idea I use has flaws in terms of really being connected to individuals, but I do agree with this study’s extrapolation — you really probably can only be super close with about 3-5 people in your life. There are natural biological and cognitive limitations on trying to be very good friends with more than (maybe at most) eight people.

As for the demoting of old friends to acquire new ones — it’s not necessarily a vindictive process by any means. If anything, it’s evolutionary and tied to geography, jobs, stage of life, context, etc.

By the way, Reed-Tsochas has been talking about the interaction of real and online social networks for years, and he has cool decks and graphs to go with it:

There are a lot of broader implications for how people live their lives individually here, as well as how policy-makers and therapists could work to help people build their own networks. It’s really interesting overall. I’d encourage you to think about your own life, how it relates, and maybe even reach out to someone you think is in the “old friends” category for a quick catch-up.

Ted Bauer