We Can’t Be Friends … Unless We’re Facebook-Friends, Too

Here’s a great — and somewhat lengthy — read from the New York Times: “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You”.

For an article 3+ years old, it’s aged well. There’s a lot worth reading here. For one thing, the Facebook News Feed seems so ubiquitous to us now, but it’s quite remarkable just how significant of a change it was to our online habits just a couple of years ago: “In essence, Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive. Why?

Is the trend towards social, social, social indicative of an even more pronounced modern narcissism on our parts? Or, has Facebook (“Facebook” being shorthand for social networks for the sake of simplicity) just made it easier for us to indulge in our narcissism which simply needed a more user-friendly interface? Sure, we understand that human beings are inherently social beings; but maybe we need to rethink what we mean by “social.” For one thing, this magazine piece had me thinking about one question in particular: what kind of social interaction are we talking about? Somewhere over the past few years, it’s become non-ironic to make some sort of distinction between our real-life friends, and our Facebook friends. But when you stop and think about it — isn’t that odd? Sure, Aristotle was thinking about the nature of friendship over two thousand years ago. “Social” to us might now mean being more and more connected, but those connections can vary quite widely in terms of depth —

“But Seery made a point I heard from many others: awareness tools aren’t as cognitively demanding as an e-mail message. E-mail is something you have to stop to open and assess. It’s personal; someone is asking for 100 percent of your attention. In contrast, ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they’re not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines; maybe you’ll read them all, maybe you’ll skip some.”

The most interesting part of this discussion to me involved the so-called Dunbar’s Number. For some context:

“In 1998, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that each human has a hard-wired upper limit on the number of people he or she can personally know at one time. Dunbar noticed that humans and apes both develop social bonds by engaging in some sort of grooming; apes do it by picking at and smoothing one another’s fur, and humans do it with conversation. He theorized that ape and human brains could manage only a finite number of grooming relationships: unless we spend enough time doing social grooming — chitchatting, trading gossip or, for apes, picking lice — we won’t really feel that we “know” someone well enough to call him a friend. Dunbar noticed that ape groups tended to top out at 55 members. Since human brains were proportionally bigger, Dunbar figured that our maximum number of social connections would be similarly larger: about 150 on average. Sure enough, psychological studies have confirmed that human groupings naturally tail off at around 150 people: the “Dunbar number,” as it is known. Are people who use Facebook and Twitter increasing their Dunbar number, because they can so easily keep track of so many more people?”

Whatever the exact number might be, it seems evident that there is a finite amount of space we have in our emotional lives for our real-life-and-Facebook friends. The article has some thoughts on weak social ties, which are quite interesting; but I won’t risk summarizing all of that here at the risk of being reductive. Ilmo van der Löwe and I were having a fun conversation about social relationships, and fictional characters. And if you think about it: when we’re reduced to merely skimming online status updates, could the people behind the status update become more like fictional characters, than flesh and blood human beings? Turns out there’s some psychology behind this line of thinking (Ilmo’s blog is great by the way, and highly recommended) — -

“It is also possible, though, that this profusion of weak ties can become a problem. If you’re reading daily updates from hundreds of people about whom they’re dating and whether they’re happy, it might, some critics worry, spread your emotional energy too thin, leaving less for true intimate relationships. Psychologists have long known that people can engage in “parasocial” relationships with fictional characters, like those on TV shows or in books, or with remote celebrities we read about in magazines. Parasocial relationships can use up some of the emotional space in our Dunbar number, crowding out real-life people.”

Could online interaction be slowly replacing some of our in-person interaction? Probably. At the very least, these sorts of observations might give us pause to think that “social” is not necessarily equivalent to “unqualified good.” The social interactions we have with others play a sizable role in shaping our understanding of ourselves. Understanding the nature of that interaction isn’t by any means an idle exercise — it’s something that can tell us an awful lot about ourselves.

“Indeed, our modern awareness tools reverse the original conceit of the Internet. When cyberspace came along in the early ’90s, it was celebrated as a place where you could reinvent your identity — become someone new … ‘You know that old cartoon? ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’? On the Internet today, everybody knows you’re a dog! If you don’t want people to know you’re a dog, you’d better stay away from a keyboard.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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