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We present a technique to measure the lateral stiffness of the nanometer-sized contact formed between a friction force microscope tip and a sample surface. Since the lateral stiffness of an elastic contact is proportional to the contact radius, this measurement can be used to study the relationship between friction, load, and contact area. As an example, we measure the lateral stiffness of the contact between a silicon nitride tip and muscovite mica in a humid atmosphere (55% relative humidity) as a function of load. Comparison with friction measurements confirms that friction is proportional to contact area and allows determination of the shear strength. © 1997 American Institute of Physics.