Adrift in a Sea of Friends

May 13, 2010

I signed up on Facebook almost six years ago and I have now finally reached 1000 friends to whom I’m connected. Well, to be fair, I’ve had 1000 people come in and out of my life: some as friends, some as acquaintances and some as peripheral connections. Either way, this value is solely an indicator of the number of people with whom I’ve felt compelled to connect at one point or another. It is not, however, any indicator of how many friends I have.

We’re very big on numbers in social technology. From connections on Linkedin to followers on Twitter to friends on Facebook, we’ve been made very aware of quantity. And though it doesn’t really mean much, many of us – myself included – have developed a rather unnatural need to accumulate more and more for the sake of growth.

Society is judgmental, and we’re all aware. Oscar Wilde said that society is a “masked ball, where everyone hides his real character and reveals it by hiding.” If you have too few friends on Facebook, people might think you’re a lonesome loser. Too many and you might be deemed a shallow socialite. But the fact of the matter is that everyone’s actual social networks are small, having around the same number of friends at any given point in time (there’s actually a specific value of about 150, termed “Dunbar’s Number”). This is universally true and not surprising – we just have never had to examine it closely until recently when technology started keeping track. It’s biological: our brains can’t allow us to have deep, meaningful relationships with too many people. It’s just too much information. As it is, our short term memory can only hold an average of only six to seven elements.

In real life, we group our friends. On the Internet, everyone’s equal.

But even in that small subset of “real” friends, we hold everyone in a series of concentric circles of increasing size emanating out from the center of extreme intimacy towards an outer cliff of near indifference. And as we move throughout our lives, people move closer or further in orbit with some sticking to the center and many dropping off the outer edge. That’s how it is in the real world and we accept it. But in Internet-land, everyone’s equal. You’re all just “friends” and you always see everything each other has to say. Not only is that inorganic, it’s detrimental – both in privacy and quality.

Let’s take a step back. To be clear, I agree there’s value in maintaining connections to people you meet over the course of your life. After all, to quote A Streetcar Named Desire, a stranger is simply a friend you haven’t met yet. Even so much as a simple interaction with someone can do wonders for building general mutual respect. Perhaps one day we’ll live in a society where everyone is friends with everyone through only a few degrees and thus, we are more likely to treat each other better. Perhaps in the long run, this will allow us not only to glean a better understanding of ourselves but also the world and life itself.

But in the meantime, I worry that the technological focus on quantity has made many people quick to deem others as “friends” before – and perhaps without – ever getting to really know them. It cheapens the relationship and detracts from actual face-to-face interaction which has been the social norm until the last twenty years or so. I’m certainly at fault for adding coworkers as friends before getting to know them. And then, upon getting to know them and seeing the potential for a real friendship, part of me is disappointed that I’ve already added them, almost as if there’s nothing more I can do to grow the friendship.

I’d argue that how many connections you accrue is useful for your own eyes and personal growth but not when showcased publicly to the world. Perhaps if we used these various technology products more authentically, we could stop focusing on what we “show off” to everyone and spend more time engaging with the friends we really know. We’d be less likely to see posts we don’t care about from people with whom we hardly engage and we wouldn’t be as likely to worry about the information we share since our audience would be limited to only the closest of friends. Let’s not try to be something we’re not; let’s just find out and enjoy who we are.

Honestly, if no one knew how many friends or connections you had, would you really be so quick to send those invites? I think we shall find that the more natural and organic we can make social technology, the more useful it will be and the happier we will be for using it.

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