Are 5,001 friends one too many?

Are 5,001 friends one too many?

Only a tiny fraction of Facebooks 400 million users have reached the 5,000 threshold

Are 5,001 friends one too many?

British anthropologist and Oxford professor Robin Dunbar has posed a theory that the number of individuals with whom a stable interpersonal relationship can be maintained (read: friends) is limited by the size of the human brain, specifically the neocortex. ‘Dunbar’s number,’ as this hypothesis has become known, is 150.
Facebook begs to differ.

What would be an impressive, even exhaustive, number of friends in real life is bush league for Facebook’s high rollers, who have thousands. Other social networks use less-intimate terminology to portray contacts (LinkedIn has ‘connections,’ Twitter has ‘followers’), but Facebook famously co-opted the word ‘friend’ and created a new verb.
Friending ‘sustains an illusion of closeness in a complex world of continuous partial attention,’ said Roger Fransecky, a clinical psychologist and executive coach in New York (2,894 friends). “We get captured by Facebook’s algorithms. Every day 25 new people can march into your living room. I come from a failed Presbyterian youth, and there was a part of me that first thought it was impolite not to respond. Then I realised I couldn’t put them all in a living room — I needed an amphitheater.”

Facebook discourages adding strangers as friends, adding that only a tiny fraction of its 400 million users have reached the 5,000 threshold, at which point Facebook wags its digital finger and says: That’s enough. The company cites behind-the-scenes ‘back-end technology’ as the reason for the cutoff, implying that the system will implode at the sight of a 5,001st friend.

“You hit this limit, and you have to commit Facebook murder, or perhaps ‘culling’ would be a better word,” said Sreenath Sreenivasan (5,000), dean of student affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His page bears the admonishment, “FB will not let me add any more friends,” and he periodically posts a message asking some on his list to ‘unfriend’ him.

What may seem surprising is that the subset of people with sizable lists is not limited to unemployed 20-somethings, commandeering tables at Starbucks and deluding themselves that they’re ‘networking,’ social or otherwise. The high-users include plenty of grown-ups with real jobs and, seemingly, better things to do with their time than updating their ‘status’ for strangers, former colleagues and camp buddies from 300 years ago.
“At one point, I arbitrarily decided that for every new friend I confirmed, I had to delete one, like people with small closets do with their clothes,” said Kurt Andersen (3,072), the host of ‘Studio 360’ on public radio.

If Facebook is a place of indiscriminate musings and minutiae, where people report their every thought, mood, hiccup, cappuccino, increased reps at the gym or switch to a new brand of toothpaste, why not indiscriminate friendships? Why deny the little frisson of pleasure when your page proclaims you are “now friends with John Smith and 27 other people?”

Facebook’s announcements and ‘suggestions’ for new friends help to fetishize those numbers, although few will admit to an ego-gratifying interest in attaining the mythical quota of 5,000, like the Ryan Bingham character of ‘Up in the Air,’ who’s obsessed with reaching 10 million frequent flier miles.

As a metric for status or worth, Facebook has the ability to reduce its adult users to insecure teenagers, competing for high SAT scores or a seat at the cool kids’ cafeteria table.

Saying that it feels like a nerdy popularity contest, Chris Brogan (4,801), whose Boston company helps businesses use new media, added: “I went through school with little popularity, and no one was proud to be my friend. Now it’s a strange badge to wear.”

Like button

But he’s loath to take the route of a ‘fan’ page, especially since that term was replaced with a ‘Like’ button, which he finds odious. “I feel like Sally Field: ‘You like me, you really like me’.”

As the lucky few learned in high school, cosmic popularity has its pitfalls, and Facebook friendship can provoke internecine battles.

“My little sister wrote to me, kicking and screaming about ‘How do you have so many friends — I only have 40’,” said Orlando chef Norman Van Aken (2,299). “It’s great that I heard from the woman who was my baby sitter when I was 5 years old, but now there are even tutorials on ‘How to build your Facebook list.’ I don’t want anything to do with that. It becomes almost a form of isolation rather than communication.”

In the same way that a hustling stockbroker talks about marquee clients (recognisable names that might impress future clients), a Facebook profile may attract traffic with marquee friends. But celebrity identity is dubious: Edith Wharton is on Facebook, and she has 735 friends.

“I’m a Facebook friend of Bob Dylan, which probably means I have a deeply meaningful relationship with his publicist,” said Daniel A Farber (1,762), a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “I was hoping to impress my wife. And on the scale of things I’ve done to impress her, it’s pretty good.”

Jeffrey Wolf, a Bay Area real estate broker, claims, among (4,447) others, Alicia Keys, Alicia Silverstone and Alicia Witt as friends — and that’s just the A-list. “I wanted to get Rachel Maddow,” he said, “but she doesn’t take friends.”

Administering such a prodigious inventory — tending to requests from impending friends, let alone communicating with extant ones — is strenuous.

“Normally I start hitting it about 10 O’clock at night, and if I do it right, I can be done by 1 am,” Wolf said. “Anybody in his right mind would consider abandoning it.”

What Andersen, the radio host, calls a graceful number of Facebook friends is a mutable concept. “I was grossed out when I first saw people with as many or fewer friends than what I have now,” he said. “There’s some optimal number, but I don’t know what it is.”
A large number (3,811) feels like the extension of a community for Hilary Rosen, managing partner of the Brunswick Group, a public strategy firm in Washington that has done consulting with Facebook.

“When I went to work at Huffington Post, Arianna told me, ‘Darling, you must confirm everybody,’ and for the most part, I follow Arianna’s rule,” Rosen said. “But there’s a core group that gets more attention, just like there used to be brown edges around some cards in my old Rolodex.”

Thousands of friends can be noisy, insistent and distracting, even for those who consider Facebook a modern way of having a conversation, like Cameron Sinclair (3,926), founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit group in Sausalito, California.

“But there’s a difference between people who are good for a dinner party conversation or one at a cocktail party,” he said. And the beauty is, they need never know which party list they’re on.

In his book ‘How Many Friends Does One Person Need?’ Dunbar stands by his number, acknowledging that digital resources help us keep in touch but fail to substitute for face-to-face relationships with loved ones who are sources of mutual support in a flesh-and-blood world. Or, as Fransecky said, “I need friends that I can scratch and sniff.”

The New York Times

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