Adding hundreds of Facebook friends and thousands of Twitter followers won’t change the size of your social network.
New research suggests that people tend to communicate most with a small, intimate group of individuals in a distinct style that persists even as social networks change.
Using survey data and mobile phone records, scientists found that even when a new member is added to a social network, older network members either drop out or start receiving fewer calls.
The study tracked changes in the communication networks of 24 students over 18 months as they moved from secondary school to university or work.
The call records provided a list of time-stamped calls made to everyone in their networks. The surveys provided specific information about the people in a network, including emotional closeness, time between face-to-face contact and all phone numbers attached to individual network members.
The students were found to focus on a small number of network members. And there were distinctive, individual variations in the exact way the students allocated their limited communication time across network members.
These distinct patterns persisted and retained their characteristic shape over time, even as a person’s network changed.
The findings may reflect potential limitations in the human ability to maintain multiple emotionally close relationships.
People only have so much time to allocate to communication, the emotional effort required to sustain close relationships and the ability to make emotional investments.
The study, “Persistence of social signatures in human communication”, was conducted by Jari Saramäki of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Computational Science, Aalto University, Espoo in Finland, and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA.
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