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Sorry, those Facebook friends aren't really friends

Technology may change, but the number of friends we can have appears to stay the same.

While social networking sites allow users to have thousands of "friends", the mind is only capable of handling a maximum of 150 relationships at one time, according to a new study conducted by Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University.

In the 1990s, Dr. Dunbar carried out research showing that the part of the brain responsible for thinking and language cannot accommodate more than 150 friends - defined as people a person cares about and makes contact with at least once a year. That figure has since been known as "Dunbar's number."

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But does the ability to connect with people online push the limits of Dunbar's number?

Sorry, Tila Tequila, but in looking at the online traffic of roughly 500 people's social networks on sites including Facebook and MySpace, Dr. Dunbar's new research suggests our ability to maintain friendships is just as limited on the Web as in the real world.

"You can list 10,000 people as friends on your social networking site. But the big issue is the quality of those relationships," Dr. Dunbar says.

"If you look at people's actual social networking sites and whom they actually contact on a regular basis, then that really comes down to the same group of people that they meet face to face with in the real world."

The upper limit of faces we can put names to is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000, he says. Which means those thousands of Facebook friends one might have are much less than real friends.

"You can't even know who they are, actually," Dr. Dunbar says.

The full results of the study are expected to be published later this year.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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