Why Facebook friending doesn’t mean friendship

Diary date: 29th April, 1985

FriendsI’m depressed. Or rather, my 1985 self is depressed. My diary today is a stark and rather maudlin list of the names of eight good friends I’m about to leave behind – probably forever*. I’m getting ready to go back to university in Hull, but more importantly – now that they have successfully launched me from the family nest – my parents are in the process of upping sticks and moving house from rural Norfolk to the bright lights of the Bavarian capital, Munich. Once they move, ‘going home’ will never be the same again.

The eight names are like a roll call of the lost.

Keep in touch, maybe? Send letters? Ridiculous. At 19, the very idea was embarrassing – and how did you put pub banter in writing anyway? The occasional phone call? No chance. No access to a phone and no money for calls either.

No, all is lost. Might as well forget them all now and be done with it.

Facebook: compare and contrast.

Life these days couldn’t be more different. Facebook and other social tools mean that losing contact is almost more difficult than maintaining it, and relationships can seemingly be sustained with much larger numbers of people. According to an April 2013 study by Stephen Wolfram,  the median number of friends per person on Facebook has now reached the dizzy heights of 342. This number varies with age of course, with younger users having substantially more ‘friends’ than those in older age groups.

The people we ‘friend’ on Facebook change with age too. Most of our friends in our younger years tend to be about our own age – then as we get older we start branching out a little. Wolfram also explains why it is that so many of our friends appear to have more friends than we do – a real world phenomenon called the friendship paradox.

Facebook even means people can make relatively intimate contact in anticipation of possible future friendship – say, hooking up online before going somewhere new – perfect for today’s university newbies.

It seems numbers of friends may be important for reasons other than notional popularity too – the more friends you have, the more money you’re allegedly likely to earn. In 2009, the BBC cited a 35-year study of 10,000 US students which suggested that the most financially comfortable in later life were those that had the most friends when they were at school. Each extra friend added a not insignificant 2% to their future salary.

Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar

But friendship surely isn’t a numbers game.  And is it really possible to have active friendships with the hundreds of contacts that Facebook encourages? Enter British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who proposed a hard-wired limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships – an idea popularised as Dunbar’s number. The most oft-quoted Dunbar figure is around 150 – way below Wolfram’s median of about 400 friends for Facebook users in their early twenties.

The obvious conclusion is that what’s happening on Facebook (and elsewhere) isn’t friendship in its traditional sense, but a set of relationships built more loosely around values like mutual awareness and availability. As a result, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Facebook and (more effectively) Google+ have both introduced ways for us to group friends according to the kind of relationship we want to have with them. In other words, they’re facilitating their users’ retreat to something closer to Dunbar’s number.

Of the eight friends I left behind in 1985, the absence of social media combined with our collective male apathy meant that I eventually lost touch with all but one. I’m sure the current crop of Facebook users will fare far better, but the jury’s still out on whether they’ll be able to maintain the extraordinary pace they’ve set themselves.

*In fact, it turned out to be about 23 years, but I wasn’t far wrong, so let’s not split hairs.

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2 thoughts on “Why Facebook friending doesn’t mean friendship

  1. Kevin Brennan

    Terrific idea for a blog, and thank you for visiting mine. I was keeping similar diaries through my twenties as well, when I lived in London for a while, and they are in many ways akin to yours. Regards!

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  2. dakegra

    Facebook ‘friending’ is such a mystifying thing – I’ve added and been added a motley collection of people from current friends to old school friends, to colleagues current and ex-. A lot of the time the conversation goes ‘oh, hi! how’ve you been? *Great* to get back in touch!’ followed by the odd ‘like’ (another facebookism that warrants a whole other post – why no ‘dislike’?) then the realisation that interactions will end up with me being increasingly annoyed by them throwing random virtual livestock at me, or requesting weird and wonderful things for the current game.

    A while back I went through and ‘tidied up’ my facebook friends list – I kept it to close friends, relatives (reluctantly, in some cases) and people who I had no other means of keeping in touch with. People who I interacted with on other sites (twitter, G+, livejournal etc) were taken off the list, with a friendly note explaining to the world at large what I’d done, and that it was nothing personal but honestly, we interact many times a day on twitter, so I’d see you all over there.

    Crikey. Some people really got upset. Despite the fact that our facebook interactions consisted almost entirely of the aforementioned virtual livestock/candy crush/whatever. I lost a fair few people from Twitter too.

    Hmm. I seem to have got carried away. Maybe I should do a facebook blog post of my own!

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