High definition televisions, smartphones, tablets, Kindles, Apple watches, iPods. If you’re a breathing and coherent American, you’re likely using at least one of these devices and using it a lot. The media revolution continues to explode and the lens through which we see the world is becoming more flat, artificial, and computerized.
And to some degree, so are our friendships.
The average adult Facebook user in the U.S. has hundreds of Facebook “friends”, and many of us continue to amass contacts, join groups, and expand our social network through new and varied channels. With each new friend, “like” and comment comes a dopamine boost. It’s an addiction of sorts that many of us can’t quit. More and more and more friends. More love, more support, more comfort. We’re not alone but part of something bigger, a community.
With our blanket of friends, we feel safe in this chaotic world.
Don’t get me wrong – there are undeniable benefits to online communities and social networks. It can enhance current relationships and help slow the decay of friendships that naturally occurs with distance. And for those who are isolated and alone, stigmatized, and unable to find like-minded individuals, finding support through the tangled web of the Internet can be a life-saver.
But most of our online buddies are not real friends. They’re avatars, a 2-dimensional picture of something much more complex, perhaps completely different than what they seem. Behind their “likes”, comments, emoticons, and silence lies a rich personality and emotional landscape that we may never know.
Perhaps for this reason, most online friendships mean little. Virtually every online and offline study of friendships has found that our innermost circle taps out at around 5 people, regardless of whether you have an enormous social network of friends or not. For example, in one Facebook study, where the average user had only 155 friends, participants reported that they would call only 4 of those in a crisis and consider just 13 as “close” friends. If you examine those with larger lists, results are pretty much the same.
As a Portuguese saying apparently goes, “You have five friends and the rest is landscape.”
But before you lament this sad sounding number, hold up. There may be a biological reason for this. According to the psychologist, Dr. Robin Dunbar, one’s broader social circle is about 100-200. This number, known as “Dunbar’s number” represents the maximum number of friends that your brain can handle.
Simply put, we don’t have enough brainpower for more.
Luckily, studies show that it’s generally a small number (15 or less) that matter most in terms of our emotional and physical health. So no need to divert unnecessary resources to keeping up with every random person we make an acquaintance with at a friend’s dinner party or cousin’s wedding. We don’t need it.
We can puff up our social network lists, collecting friends like trading cards all we want. In the end, few of those people really matter.
And thank God, because new research just emerged with the finding that 50% of those we call friends don’t’ actually feel the same way. So if you’re having trouble paring down your list of friends, don’t fret. Take half of those people out of the equation, because those soft and fuzzy feelings may not be reciprocal. And I suspect that if you tally up your 1,000 or more contacts on social media, that percentage will skyrocket.
The people that we care about who also care about us – the people that will stick by our side when the sh*t hits the fan – are few.
Who knows where our social revolution is going. After all, we’re a generation of drifters, moving from place to place, constantly shifting our position in life. We change jobs more frequently than generations prior, and talk of ourselves as personal brands rather than people.
With this constant change and upheaval, it’s no surprise that we want to feel grounded and secure. That we have a place, a purpose, and some reason for being here. What better way to feel safe and needed than to immerse ourselves in a sea of people, one for each inch of our body. To hold us up so that we don’t come crashing down.
Social networks may be our adaptation to fight isolation – or our response to it. Whichever way it goes, data says that our number of close friends has decreased over the last 25 years, and social isolation has at least tripled.
There is a reason why social networks prominently display the number of friends. The developers know it’s a carrot – a dangling number to prove, to ourselves and others, our influence and social worth.
Except it’s not enough.
It’s not a replacement for in-person friendships. A picture does not equal a person. An update is not a story. A comment is nothing more than a quick click of words.
So go out and nurture your relationships.
Seed them and watch them grow. Because in the end, there are only a few that truly matter and life is so much more fulfilling when they are by our side.