First of all, you might ask, "Why would someone want to be able to have more than 5,000 friends?" Major studies undertaken a year or so ago found that the average facebook user only had a couple hundred friends, and more to the point, some sociology studies have identified that most people only have about half a dozen to a dozen true "friends." The problem lies in the definition: Facebook "friends" include "acquaintances," which can justifiably number in the hundreds or thousands.
So rather than focusing on the definition of friends here, and the moral issues of calling casual acquaintances "friends" (not a bad thing?), let me focus on the facebook-specific implications: social & professional marketing.
In terms of social marketing, some people like adding lots of acquaintances. Others rarely add acquaintances, and let acquaintances find them. I'm not going to comment on this process here, mostly because I don't think it's that relevant to this post. In any two-way relationship, someone has to make the first step.
Incidentally, when thinking purely in terms of numbers, is five thousand friends "too many?" I don't believe so, for some people. I've been thinking about this for a little while this evening (er, morning). I have about 1300 people in my friends list on Facebook. Many people say that's a lot. I disagree. I'd guess that when you consider all the people that I know well enough to have a reasonable conversation with on the street or on the telephone, less than one tenth are in my friends list. Work that backwards, and I probably know well over ten thousand people well enough to know who they are and talk to them comfortably. Seems like a lot? Maybe I'm over-estimating? No. Think about it this way: Over the past decade or more, between my work as a tree planting supervisor, as a bar manager, and as a restaurant owner, I've had over a thousand direct employees. Add to that the people I know through the music industry, either as professionals or as fans or as friends. Add to that all the regular customers (students and alumni) that I've come to know well in my job running the bar at the University - I usually know close to half of each year's grad class, so there's another ten thousand people right there. Five thousand acquaintances is not unreasonable for some "public figures." And think about writers, politicians, activists, actors, etc. They'd meet many more people than I might.
In terms of professional marketing, this limit is important. Facebook has traditionally had three main approaches for marketing (I won't lie - I use FB as much for the marketing as I do for the social aspects, although I consider both to be equally important). These three are:
(1). Personal Friends: I've tried to block people that I don't know. In fact, last year, I put up a post saying:
I have decided to stop accepting friend requests on my personal page from random internet crack-heads & stalkers. Random unknown DJ fans will heretofore be denied and will remain banished to my "DJ Fan Page," except for the few hundred of you that I already know well or know vaguely (if you're still here, you passed the test). MTA friends/alum are great, as are the tree planters, family & friends, and also the professional musicians & producers. Oh, and the random peeps that I meet in the bars in Halifax, Moncton, and Saint John are generally pretty cool and encouraged to remain.
Going forward, if you're offended by any of my personal posts, remember the following: I spend six months of each year being far too sober for my own good. I spend the other six months being occasionally the opposite. Your goal is to figure out which is which. Life is short: enjoy it.
I think I have now narrowed my friends list down to the 1245 people whom I currently would be quite comfortable sharing a drink or a few hours of conversation with. You are one of them.
The drawback with personal friends is that the number has always been capped at five thousand. Facebook's reason for this was originally a logistical scaling issue, and a couple years ago, a study found that there were only a thousand users on Facebook with this problem. So it wasn't really "a problem" in their eyes.
(2). Groups: The advantage to "groups" on Facebook (over fan pages) is more direct control of members, plus better messaging capabilities, albeit only IF the group was, historically, under five thousand members. The big problem with groups, however, was that once they reached five thousand members, the ability to message members was removed entirely, to minimize message traffic and spam. Speaking as a DJ and musician, or any type of figure that wants to communicate with fans, this is a death sentence. You have to assume that your popularity will grow over time, and thus, eventually your group will become useless in terms of communicating with fans.
(3). Fan Pages: This is where "fan pages" came in. Fan pages on FB allow for administrators to continue to send out updates to fans, no matter how large the group gets. The only problem with this (and admittedly, it's not a deal-breaker, but it is quite annoying) is that "updates" are collected in a separate folder in your inbox from personal or group messages, therefore, a lot of updates are not read by fans unless they specifically choose to go through their update folder. And although I'm not positive about this, I don't believe that fan updates result in a message notifier being sent to your email account, which further reinforces the fact that if you don't specifically check your update folder, you never see the updates.
Fan Pages are obviously the best option at the moment for public figures who will attract a large fan base, and groups are the best for figures who will maintain a small base of under five thousand. But trying to plan this in advance leads to difficulties. Facebook will not let you arbitrarily switch back and forth. Ouch.
In May of 2008, news reports surfaced to state that Facebook WAS planning to lift the five-thousand friend limit eventually, although no specific date was announced. Info that I've seen recently indicates is that this change is still being considered for this year. Earlier tonight, I finally saw a couple people with friends lists that cracked five thousand. To be honest, it jumped out at me pretty quickly, because a lot of friends of mine who are DJ's or producers have been capped at 4999 friends, so seeing 5000+ was a bit of a shock. However, there is no official news to date.
If this change has finally happened, officially, it raises a few questions:
1. Has the limit really been lifted entirely, or has it been just raised to a slightly higher amount (which is no long-term solution), or was this a programming problem? (For example, if you have 4999 fans, and then ten of them are university students who temporarily suspend their accounts during exams to avoid distractions, and you add ten more fans to replace those, then those students reactivate their accounts, that might circumvent the cap temporarily).
2. Has the limit only been increased for personal friends, or does it also apply to groups? And remember that groups have always been able to have 5000+ members, unlike personal friends' lists, however, messaging has been blocked. So this is really two separate issues, although the fact that the caps are the same leads me to wonder if they happen to be linked and whether or not both aspects have been changed.
3. How will this affect promotions for public figures? As noted, I've always kept my friends' list fairly exclusive. Some DJ's that I know have tried to circumvent the problem by having multiple accounts. However, if the limit has been lifted, I think I would try to set up two personal accounts, and limit one to the categories of real acquaintances that I know, and use the other one for the more random fans of my DJ'ing and productions. This is risky too, because FB could theoretically crack down on my extra account and pull it.
The issue of spam concerns me. As the administrator of a fan page, I am the one who creates the "spam." I dislike receiving garbage emails, so I therefore try to avoiding being the person who sends them. With my fan page, in nine months, I've only sent out five fan updates. But the whole point of marketing centers on the ability to communicate with fans effectively. If I could send actual messages to the in-boxes of all fans, it would be more effective than sending updates. But I would be very cautious about sending out any messages unless they were what I considered to be the very most important ones, ie. if I was releasing a new self-produced track, or any other news significant to my music career. Unfortunately, my interpretation of what is important is not always interpreted the same way by fans, and even worse, some fan page administrators don't seem to mind clogging up peoples' in-boxes. But there is a feedback mechanism there - if you get annoyed at the quantity or content of messages that you're getting from a page/group/person, you can always "remove friend" or "leave group/page."
It will be interesting to learn, eventually, what's happening here. I just hope that Facebook eventually releases some official information. At the present, there is still just rumour and speculation. You would think that in a theoretical sense, since a network's strength is reinforced by the size and strength of its nodes, FB would be willing to expand the numbers if scaling is presumably no longer as big an issue as it was several years ago.
ETA, March 20th, 2010:
Now the accounts that I saw with over 5,000 are below that number again, so maybe the limit has not been lifted yet. A few more thoughts:
- If Facebook is worried about lifting the cap but is also thinking about their revenue model, they could maybe give users the ability to become a "professional" member by paying something like $99 per year and those members would be allowed to exceed the limit. I'm not saying that I would necessarily be interested in paying the premium myself, but it would also give an option to those people who are quite adamant about scaling to a larger group.
- Maybe "friends" on FB could eventually be divided into two categories: friends and acquaintances, or friends and connections. Mind you, I haven't thought this option through carefully yet, and my initial gut reaction would be that this would be unbelievably complex for FB to implement. And I don't yet see how this could solve the problems that I've touched on.
- For my personal example, of being happy with keeping my friends private and having a widely used fan page, I could solve the "communications" issue by creating a group or groups specifically for the purpose of sharing promotional items. For example, my friends' list stays exactly the same. My fan page stays exactly the same. On my fan page, I put up a notice that says, "incidentally, if you wish to receive messages from me whenever I release new music or want to share videos & other important news, join my 'DJ Bolivia Music Releases 1' group." Then I'd have the ability to direct message members of that group, without messaging other fans who wouldn't read the messages any. And if that promotional sub-group got close to 5,000 members, I start "group 2." The only problem I can see with this solution is that I'm not sure how to easily cap membership once I get close to 5,000, without booting people out of the group. I guess that there are ways to make the group a closed group once you move onto the second or successive groups, so ultimately, this last idea might prove to be the best solution.
I'm going to have to think about this for a few more days.
Edit, November 7th, 2010:
The limit is still in place. However, "groups" as they were known six months ago have been eliminated. The old groups that were previously in place have not been erased, but it is not possible to great new groups. Instead, fan pages seem to be the trend of the future. There is also a new sub-group category which I'm just exploring, whereby a person can create and automatically add people to their own sub-group. Very strange.
Edit, February 22nd, 2016:
Groups are obviously fully functional again, although they are very much changed from the way they were in the late 2000's. In fact, Facebook has really matured. Oh, and the limit of 5000 friends is still in place.