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May 3, 2010
Meredith Whitmore
This Is Your Friendship on Facebook

This Is Your Friendship on Facebook

An old college buddy found me on Facebook a couple months ago. We weren't BFFs or anything, but we'd enjoyed each other's wit in English classes. And with a simple electronic invitation he evoked a flood of funny memories. Especially when I remembered the numerous times he'd feigned utter disgust after I'd aced an assignment that he—a self-proclaimed "mere literary mortal"—definitely hadn't.

Though he and I haven't connected for almost 20 years, it felt great to "see" him. But since he's married and lives 2,000 miles away, we'll probably never actually see each other again or truly talk about anything of substance. So his "Chicken cacciatore for dinner tonight!" status updates are pretty much all I'll ever know about him. And if he reads my page, the ramblings on my cat's psychotic behavior won't explain what I've been doing for the last two decades.

Those facts got me wondering, What's the point of our newfound contact?

If previous generations haven't held on to every single human being they've met since kindergarten, then why do many of us seem to feel the need to do so today? Shouldn't some of our relationships slip away so that others can thrive?

Purple Blazer, Meet Facebook
In only the last six to 10 years, social media has turned our concept of community upside down and on its ear. Now we can schmooze with virtually anyone, anywhere on the planet—whether or not we have seen them in decades or even laid eyes on them in person. But considering the fact that all previous eras have lived well and happily without Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Friendster—and even without the Internet itself—why aren't more of us wondering how these new technologies affect modern relationships?

The General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago reports that in 2004, despite having numerous online friends, the average American had only two true confidants. That was one fewer than in 1984. Almost 25% of those surveyed reported they had no close friends to discuss important matters with. Two decades earlier, only 7% felt they the same way.

I can't imagine that things have improved much in 2010, either. And that makes me wonder if our social networking "friends" lists have turned into something like a disorganized bedroom closet. Has a high school acquaintance whom I barely knew 25 years ago become like the blazer I bought in 1992—and haven't worn since 1994 because the shoulder pads could knock people over? I keep it "just in case," but it and I have no relationship beyond its blocking my access to other garments.

In a sense, Robin Dunbar, a professor of anthropology at Oxford University, agrees. He proved the commonsensical point that our brains can only juggle so many relationships. His studies have shown that, while social media allow us to have hundreds if not thousands of connections, the number of genuine friends we communicate with never reaches that number. He told Britain's Times Online, "You can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world."

Then what about the other 1,350? Or, if our lists aren't that long, even the other 100?

Gain 200, Lose 2
Sure, many social media users passionately argue that even if many contacts are peripheral, "It's just fun to know what people are doing!" But consider the fact that most of what we are doing and writing is really mundane. Besides this, how many of us could name every single friend in our social networking stockpiles? If we can't, and many of us certainly can't, then how much of a workout do these "friendships" really get?

Isn't it possible that as a result of reading legions of people's conversations, updates and groupthink exercises like "25 Things About Me," social networking is actually distracting us from deep friendship as it siphons us into superficiality—which spills into even our inner circle of "two true confidants"?

I can't count the times, for instance, that I've been in a room with various friends who are poring over smartphones to check Facebook or e-mail instead of focusing on the individuals present. Not to mention the fact that when anyone spends an hour or two reading random information about people they never see, they're neglecting those they could be with personally. And if we didn't pick up the phone and call all of our friends to share every arbitrary thought or action before social networking, why are we compelled to broadcast them now?

What must we think is in it for us?

Ever wonder why you share what you do with friends, social networking related or not? It's usually to have a good laugh, to convey important information, to exhort, to solicit help or comfort. But some researchers and social commentators suggest there's more than meets the eye to why and what we disclose.

Do we all realize, for example, when exactly it is that we reveal information to show off? To vent? To gain social or intellectual standing? To manipulate? To intentionally stir up trouble? Are we building up our Facebook friends for the express purpose (consciously or unconsciously) of guaranteeing a built-in audience with whom we can indulge our increasingly narcissistic tendencies? In our clamor to be known, appreciated and seen on social networking sites, are some of us becoming relationship consumers rather than nurturers?

Dabbling in Offline "Isolation"
Earlier this year I gave up social networking for a couple of months. I needed to remember what life was like before Pieces of Flair, lists of 400-plus status updates and several trillion Mafia Wars invitations. Previously I'd updated my own status two or three times a week and bantered with a lot of people I rarely, if ever, see or talk to out loud.

Three things happened during and after my experiment: 1) I didn't miss Facebook much. 2) I stayed in better contact with physically present friends because I wasn't poring over virtual friends' antics. 3) After salvaging some perspective, I've lost a good percentage of my interest in social networking. I realized it's exhausting to maintain so many "relationships" and the real, flesh-and-blood ones I deal with every day. As author Jesse Rice says in his book The Church of Facebook, "Hyperconnectivity can lead to hyperactivity."

So maybe the question to ask ourselves isn't "How many friends do I have?" but rather, "Who is my truest community?" Really narrow it down to those you have meaningful contact with regularly, then do everything you can to help them thrive—and see them face-to-face instead of just on Facebook. In some cases that might mean weeding out online activities or connections that distract from physically present friends in need of ministry and fellowship.

If face time can't happen, Facebook can stand in, sure. Social networking isn't evil—nor am I for soberly assessing it. (So don't send me hate mail!) It can connect people and be useful and fun. Still, many (most) of us could benefit from reevaluating the ways we use it—and the less obvious whys.