So, what do you make of the petition to do away with the upper limit of friends a person is allowed to have on Facebook? The current maximum stands at 5,000; go above this number and your account is disabled and you are frozen out of the site. In protest, the more gregarious Facebookers have started an on-line petition to beseech the site’s administrators to let them have as many friends as they want. So, those of you who want to ‘friend’ more than 5,000 people know exactly where to sign up.
As for me, I’m still reeling from the realisation that there are people out there who have 5,000 friends – and still want more. I’m not sure I even know 5,000 people, let alone have that number lining up to ‘friend’ me on Facebook. In fact, if I add up all the numbers, I would probably be lucky if I reached a thousand, if that.
Don’t get me wrong. I may not be the world’s foremost expert on social media, but I am not a total idiot either. I understand that a friend on Facebook is not really a friend in the traditional sense of the term. Facebook friends can be people who you know very peripherally or maybe not at all. They may include work colleagues, business contacts, friends of friends, complete strangers, hell, even cyber stalkers and the like.
But even so, 5,000 ‘friends’? You have got to be kidding. Of course, if you believe social scientists then the number of friends a person can realistically hope to make is way below this mark. British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a magic number: 150. This, according to him, was the number of people any one person can have stable social relationships with. Dunbar’s number, as it somewhat inevitably came to be called, is based on the size of the neo-cortex of the human brain and the size of communities in hunter-gatherer societies.
Dunbar’s theory is borne out by recent anecdotal evidence on social networking sites which shows that no matter how many ‘friends’ a person may have – 500 or 5,000 – meaningful and regular communication is restricted to just around 150 people. Human beings, it would seem, are hardwired to interact within relatively small, well-integrated groups in which most people know each other and have some sort of social link with one another.
And yet, the moment you sign up for any social networking site, you find all kinds of characters crawling out of the woodwork, asking to be your friend. People you barely said hello to in school or college suddenly want to be ‘added’ to your list. Colleagues whom you haven’t seen in years want to link up again. Everyone wants to get back in touch even though there is probably a good reason why you lost touch to begin with. And then, there are the loonies: complete strangers who want to be your friend simply because they like your profile picture.
My guess is that all those people who already have a few thousand people on their ‘friend’ list and are now clamouring to ask for more, simply sign on anyone who sends in a request. After all, social media sites are all about showing off these days, about how well-connected and popular you are. So, as far as friends go, the dictum seems to be: the more the merrier.
But really, when you think about it, how many people would you call a friend? In my experience, very few people qualify if you are being completely honest with yourself. Few childhood friends survive the transition to adulthood. If you are very fortunate indeed, you probably still have ten people in your life who knew you as a child.
College buddies have a slightly better survival rate, but even so you probably aren’t in regular touch with more than a dozen. Work colleagues tend to fall off the radar pretty soon once you switch jobs with just a handful making the cut as friends. And few of us know our neighbours well enough to call them acquaintances, leave alone friends.
In fact, when it comes down to it, there are very few people you can call friends in the real sense of the term. In my book, only those who qualify on the following five counts make the list.
Someone you can call at two in the morning simply because you are in a blue funk and can’t fall asleep.
Someone you rely on to tell you that your bum does look big in those pair of jeans (and those blonde highlights really don’t work).
Someone who drops in to see you with a steaming cup of cappuccino/chicken soup when you are at home nursing a cold (and whom you can greet at the door in your pyjamas).
Someone you would trust to look after your kids if you were to die in a horrible accident.
Someone you can have a slam-dunk row with – name-calling, phone-banging, abuse-shouting, etc. – secure in the knowledge that it will make no difference to your relationship.
Frankly, if you have five people in your life with whom you can do all of the above, you should count yourself lucky.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami