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September 4, 2009

Can a Guy Have Too Many Friends? Facebook Says No; Gorillas Say Otherwise

I was stunned and smitten.

The first time I saw Facebook was at a diocesan conference in October 2007 at a panel titled something like “Using New Media for Ministry to Young Adults.” I watched with a slacked jaw as Facebook was trotted out without the least flair and made to perform its now-familiar tricks for 60 minutes.

“You can do this,” the speaker said, and showed us, and the world turned a little. “You can do that.” Bing. Zam. Pow.

Then the lights went on and I got out of my seat, feeling that something both seismic and subtle had moved under our feet during the previous hour.

It was, I think, the two simultaneous options presented by Facebook that made it such a revolution. First, I could say what was going on in my world, in any moment and to any level of detail, and you, my real-life friend, could read that and maybe even respond. And second, we could change places. The myriad time-consuming applications were just the cherry on top of an already capably-constructed banana split.

I went home, turned on the computer, and showed my wife. She shrugged and went back to doing something else. A week later she was online, and that was it for both of us.

Now the secret is out, of course – way out. I have about 500 “friends,” fewer than half of whom I know to any measurable depth. Of those roughly 200, I can honestly say that for good or ill, about half wouldn’t be acquaintances anymore if it weren’t for Facebook. That leaves me in durable friendship with about one-fifth the total herd. And, really, from this side of the screen, 100 seems awfully optimistic.

For one thing, who can keep track of that many relationships? In The Behavior Guide to African Mammals, noted biologist Richard Despard Estes remarks that in all his time in Africa, he never saw more than 37 silverback gorillas in a group, though a more realistic spread would have been much lower, ranging from 20 at most all the way down to just two. Is that a word to the wise from the animal kingdom about how many relationships can be truly manageable and fulfilling at the same time?

Well, I don’t know; let’s ask the gorilla. In Estes’ heyday (1948), the British anatomist Sir Arthur Keith quoted 650 cubic centimeters as the maximum brain volume on file for gorillas, while the lowest quoted for that of humans was 855 cc. So even the gorilla with the biggest brain still came up about one-quarter shy of the human with the least amount of brain. Brain volume, of course, might not have anything to do with capacity or organization: still, it makes you want to peel a banana and give it a good think.

In its wisdom, Facebook limits the number of friends for any one user to 5,000 total, and the number of friends who can be added in any one day to 20. Meanwhile, animal sociology and a little kitchen-table math tell me that anything past 75 relationships is a wash, and that after that the herd had ought to be off somewhere thinning itself.

Yet if you’ve ever gone through the process of removing someone as a Facebook friend, you know what kinds of hell that can kick up, no matter how quietly you may undertake to do it.

So you’re stuck, aren’t you? You can go on living the lie about having far more acquaintances than you actually do (making you just like everyone else), or you can get out the weed bucket and generate email from that guy who sat next to you in one class for one semester twenty years ago who now wonders why you hate him so much. (Was it because he asked to borrow your stapler? It was the stapler, wasn’t it?)

It seems to me that the only way to honestly manage the problem of having too many online friendships is not to start piling them on. And that leaves a lot of us in the weeds since the Point of Diminishing Returns long faded in the distant horizon over our collective shoulder. Really, even among the most socially extroverted, how many of us can have genuinely sustained, productive, and meaningful relationships with 200-300 people?

Meanwhile, what shall I do with the 425 or so relationships I have that I don’t think I need? My imagination might be failing me, but it seems there are only three viable strategies, and two of them are uncharitable. For one thing you could just dump all these chumps, or just be caustic to them and hope they’ll dump you. Or you could learn to live with them, and discover something interesting about them you didn’t know. You might just have an embarrassment of riches.

Feeling like both Pollyanna and a hypocrite after writing the last paragraph, I posted the following as my Facebook status: “I have lots of Facebook friends, but a much smaller circle of persons with whom I regularly interact. To all those Facebook friends with whom I don’t communicate very often: Tell me something wonderful about yourselves.” It was a truly enriching exercise, and one I would challenge you to try for yourself.

One person had a recent promotion in her job. Another was just starting to feel settled in to the new school year. Still another had just moved – a fact I’d forgotten but had meant to act upon. Many were kind enough to say something nice about me. There were silly items and serious items and heartbreaking items.

And as I logged out, I realized I had more friends than I thought. And maybe not 500; maybe not yet, or not ever for that matter. But by golly, the circle might just expand if we try: if we’re willing to stretch beyond the merely mammalian.

1 comment:

"Miss" Anita said...

Very insightful blog post, Torey.

I remember a surprise party my sister threw for me at her West U apartment... nearly 19 years ago. Somewhere, I have a picture of you, Vic, Doug, and a few others all lined up in her apt for a long line of back-rubbers. That's how I remember you. :)