Online Relationships Don’t Work

Lets just be real for a hot minute.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, said we can only manage around 150 connections to other people. Whether his studies were legit or not, it’s food for thought. He had a theory that there was a ratio between brain size and size of social circles, based on studies with primates and humans. He came to the conclusion that a human’s circle is up to 150 connections. Should a human go beyond 150 then some of those connections start to weaken and eventually break.

That’s not to say we all should have 150 best friends. That’s madness. But the 150 connections include colleagues, friends, family, acquaintances, relationships etc etc…

“According to the theory, the tightest circle has just five people – loved ones. That’s followed by successive layers of 15 (good friends), 50 (friends), 150 (meaningful contacts), 500 (acquaintances) and 1500 (people you can recognise). People migrate in and out of these layers, but the idea is that space has to be carved out for any new entrants.”


If you keep adding to this pretty big circle then the connections are going to suffer. You’ll spread yourself so thin you won’t be adding value to anyone’s life. You’ll be too busy that you won’t get to spend enough quality time with people. You’ll not give adequate time and energy to your colleagues to be great at your work and you might lose that friendly neighbourhood small talk if you find yourself not making the effort with your acquaintances. Do you see how it can spiral!?

Dunbar was studying this a long time before the modern world and the dawn of social media. This puts Dunbar’s theory into question. Can we sustain more connections with the help of the internet and all these social platforms?

Of course this is all theory and might not be a law of the social brain, but I do think it makes some sense. I used to know of people who had maxed out their friends list on Facebook. That’s about 4000 people. You’re telling me you have 4000 nearest and dearest and you give them lots of time and effort? On ya bike ladddd!

Having grown up with social media rapidly developing, in my formative years I grew accustomed to always chatting online to people non stop. MSN, texting, Whatsapp, FB Messenger etc, cycling through each app and chat box as the notifications pinged. Look how social I am. I have soooo many friends!

But how many really are ‘friends’? I feel as though in recent years my parameters and definitions of what is a friend has shifted. It’s no longer a random person in the year above me at school who follows me on social media and often likes my pictures yet we don’t speak in person. It’s no longer the people in the group chat from years ago that no one dares delete out of looking rude.

Getting rid of my social media has certainly played a part in redefining what a relationship with someone is. I made peace with knowing I would lose all these ‘friends’ once I had deleted it. And those who I was close with would maintain a friendship via Whatsapp or phone.

The internet allows us to maintain connections with people we would not usually be able to. And I don’t think that’s necessarily an advantageous thing for us. Sure, we have friends and family in different places and back in the day a post card, letter, email would suffice in offering a suitable level of connection to that person who lived many miles away. Compare that connection with someone who you live with, the amount of time spent together and energy spent developing that bond and co-existing fruitfully. The two connections here are very different but the energy level is aligned with how close you are geographically. Add in the internet and social media and we now have an imbalance and a skewed expectation of level of connection.

Now, here’s my problem and something I am working on adjusting:

I have ‘friendships’ via the internet with people who live in other cities, we talk a lot, almost daily and have done for 5+ years. But when one of us gets into a relationship, our friendship dies instantly.

The above statement is not just with one person, it has been several throughout the years.

This has also happened recently with one person, and today with another. I appreciate today, my friend said he has met someone, and I know this means we will eventually not talk to each other. I was immediately very sad and shed a tear. but I sat with the thought and was inspired to write this post. It’s a learning curve for me and what has happened it okay!

Messaging daily with people far away is a habit I don’t like and I want to get rid of. I have had several long distance relationships and they suck! I seem to put too much emphasis on friendships/relationships on the internet when I should be focusing on everyone around me in person. It became a habit because it was a nice thing to do, talk to someone via messaging, in those moments of solitude or boredom. It feels good to maintain a connection with someone even though they are far away.

But then it becomes saddening. You wish you could hang with them in person, you wonder what they are up to. You wonder why they didn’t message back. Even though they are online, the attachment to that daily habit of messaging is strong and when it goes, it hella hurts.

I have wasted countless days, and ruined many events and moments because I was too focused on the people messaging me on my phone rather than the people who were actually around me. I am checkin’ myself right here, that’s not okay dude!

I don’t think this is healthy!

And what happens is the friendship gets ripped away from us as soon as someone deemed more important shows up in our/there lives. I am not saying I should not be friends with people who don’t live near me. That’s silly. But I am realising that the ratio of energy put in and level of connection is out of whack. If I follow Dunbar’s theory, these people are actually in the periphery. To be contacted on occasion or if we happened to be in the same city. And that’s okay!

I think bearing this idea in mind helps towards focusing on the present which we all know is the secret to contentment and happiness. How can you focus on the here and now when you’re thinking about people a million miles away daily? Same goes with social media, how can you go off and do amazing things with your life with the people around you if you’re focused on all the information social media is offering you about your one billion best friends?