I’ve got hundreds of Facebook friends I’ve never met.
When I was young, we called them imaginary friends.
Do you get most of your news, family announcements, friend notifications, etc. from Facebook or Twitter? Or do you rely on the “old-fashioned” methods of the telephone and snail mail? Are your friends on Facebook really your friends? I’ve come to use the phrase “Facebook acquaintance” when I’m referring to a comment made by someone I knew in sixth grade, or a story told by the daughter of an ex-co-worker. They’re people I’m acquainted with and could have an in-person conversation with, if the opportunity arose. However, it likely will not.
I’m not trying to be cynical here. It’s just a fact. We all have “real” friends versus “online” friends, right? A real friend will follow the ambulance to the hospital when you have a kidney stone. An online friend will ask “did you feel the earthquake?” (which may have been hundreds of miles away).
A recent article regarding social media poses the following scenario: You’re skimming your Twitter feed and notice a stream of sad tweets from a college friend. Without a moment’s thought, you send a funny GIF across the digital divide, content that you’ve cheered up your friend and made a positive mark on their day. On the other hand, you can’t quite remember where they’re living these days, or what they do for work. Did you miss their birthday? Chances are, you pop over to Facebook and check, reassure yourself that you’re caught up on their milestones, then go about your day. Here’s the dilemma: are you still friends, even though you haven’t seen each other in years, or spoken in a non-digital medium? Are all those tools for staying connected actually making you a worse friend?
Human interaction online tends to reflect real-life, centuries-old customs, according to Karen North, professor of digital social media and director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at USC Annenberg School. “Humans, by nature, have always been social animals,” North explained. “The only difference is that these days, the socializing is being done more online than face to face.”
In this day and age, people are not very likely to care what your source of information is, North noted. “There’s more of an expectation that people know about major life events because they’ve been announced on large public forums.” According to North, it used to be that you either heard about something from a friend or didn’t. “It was sort of on the announcer to reach all the groups when something good or bad happens in their life.”
People who’ve opted out of social media often miss these important — and admittedly, sometimes mundane — announcements. “They have to recognize that they are missing out,” North said. This is because these days, the issue is that the people online don’t usually feel obligated to reach out and announce things in any other way after posting about it.
“Social interactions are now valued on two different levels: One is the public, easy response on social media, and the other is the much more valued one: private contact. The social rules are more complicated these days because we don’t have the real-life social cue to tell us if someone is appreciative of our connections or not,” North said.
Brian Solis, studying digital anthropology, said the possibility of being a so-called “bad friend” for opting to go mainly digital is something people are still adapting to. “We are getting lazier, and so putting something on a wall is checked off as a personal interaction for most people,” he said. “But we’re learning the hard way, through experience — so there really is no answer to the ‘bad friend’ notion. It’s all user-defined.”
U.S. News and World Report states that Facebook makes users feel both connected and isolated. There are plenty of well-wishers when your birthday comes around, but how many of those people would you call to hang out with you?
According to a study from Oxford University, “There is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome.” In other words: Your brain can’t handle too many friends. In fact, the average person has about four real ones, regardless of the number listed on their profile.
To reach this conclusion, R.I.M. Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford and author of the study, examined a sample of 3,375 people in the United Kingdom ages 18 to 65. Some used social media regularly, while others did not.
The participants who used social media were asked how many Facebook friends they could depend on during an emotional or social crisis, and the average response – which barely varied between age groups – was four. The average study participant, however, had 150 Facebook friends. That’s a 2.7 percent rate of true friendship.
Further, “The data show that the size and range of online egocentric social networks, indexed as the number of Facebook friends, is similar to that of offline face-to-face networks,” Dunbar writes in the study. Translation: People who use Facebook have, on average, the same number of friends as those who don’t.
So maybe we ought to make more calls and pay more visits to the people we love. After all, there aren’t that many.