Facebook ‘friends’; isn’t it time for a good culling?

“… if your so called Facebook friends are not showing an interest in, commenting on or contributing to the events that take place in your life, doesn’t that just make them a new breed of voyeur?”

I’ve carried out a rudimentary online poll asking Facebook users what percentage of their ‘friends’, on average, they believe interact on a daily basis with their posts to Facebook.  Whilst the results are no surprise they remain nonetheless incredible.

It’s the latest must have status symbol, the ultimate kudos, a badge of pride. So, go on, tell, how many have you notched up, Facebook ‘friends’ that is?

The definition of ‘Friend’ is a person known well to another and regarded with liking, affection, and loyalty; an intimate. The definition of ‘Acquaintance’ is knowledge of a person acquired by a relationship less intimate than friendship

So, why don’t you take a few minutes now  to scroll through your prized possession, no not your Filofax, ‘that’s so yesterday, darling’, no, not even your little black book but your Facebook friend list, and  count just how many  of those so called names you’d categorise as the former (friend) and how many you’d categorise as the latter (Acquaintance).  Go on, have a quick peak, don’t be afraid…

Now, be honest with yourself, take a gander through the ones you’ve categorised as ‘friends’ and ask yourself  the following questions and then apply YES or NO answers.

  1. “Would I feel comfortable calling this person in the dead of night and asking them to drive 50 miles to pick me up because I was stranded?”
  2. “Do I know this person well enough and would I feel comfortable asking them for a loan until next pay day?”
  3. “Would this person nurse me through sickness and would they be the shoulder I’d cry on?”
  4. “How many of these people regularly (at least once a fortnight) interact with what’s happening in my life, be that on Facebook, email, instant messenger, telephone, fax or snail mail?”

Done that?

Okay, so how many were honest NO and how many YES?

And how many received a YES because they’ve already experienced one or more of the above scenarios with you?  Any? If so, total these with pride as they are the average sum of your real friends.

Of course, there are mitigating logistical circumstances that might sway the above result (e.g. these friends live thousands of miles away) but don’t be tempted to romanticise simply because, subconsciously, you believe it highly unlikely that the above questions would never be posed to or tested on these people.  E.g. I’m doing that very thing now. I have friends in the USA and I’m asking myself the above questions.  Thankfully, I’m relieved to report that they do regularly interact with what’s happening in my life AND I can answer YES to a few of the above scenarios.  Phew… I can rest that axe (otherwise known as the Unfriend button)

Because you’ve heard about that, right? The dreaded UNFRIEND button believed to be the modern day guillotine equivalent of the school ground ‘I don’t want to be friends with you anymore’.  And nobody wants to be unfriended.  Oh, the stigma of it. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Does it?

The Daily Telegraph states that ‘according to a recent poll’, the average person has approximately 150 ‘trophy friends’ (or acquaintances) on Facebook  with only 5 ‘true’ friends; that is people with whom they interact on daily basis in the  real world.  It’s believed that this is because ‘real’ friendships require additional investment of time, emotion and, sometimes, even money.  Many with real friends will recognise that when you are actually ‘face to face’, there are many emotional and facial cues, such as a smile, a look and even physical contact (such as a hug or a reassuring touch of the arm or pat on the back).  These things aren’t always easy to fake in the real world but they are in the virtual world where it’s all too easy to tell somebody how much you love them without ever having the duty to substantiate it in any way.   

The importance of having lots of ‘friends’ is something that we learn from a very early age; you’re either popular during your most impressionable years or pretty much scarred for life, at least that’s what most behavioural therapists would have us believe, one way or another. Big is ultimately better (so I’ve heard), and this inevitably applies to one’s social circle.

Facebook’s actual ‘friend’ limit is 5,000. After this users receive a message saying ‘this person has is unable to add any friends as they’ve exceeded their friend limit’ or words to that effect. I know this how? Well, I’ve exceeded my friend limit of course; I’m very popular you know!  Okay, maybe not. Nonetheless, just like a shiny new credit card, with a limit of 5,000, it’s time to get adding, 50, 100, 1000 ‘friends’, the more the better, right?  Well, actually, no.

According to studies conducted by professor Sundar of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, whilst people perceive somebody with a high percentage of ‘friends’ to be popular, attractive, self-assured, those with more than 800 friends are perceived as insecure.

Still, 800 ‘friends’, can you imagine 800 potential messages, 800 potential phone calls, 800 Facebook updates. It’d be impossible to keep up, wouldn’t it?  Yes, it would and that’s even if you didn’t have a life! Academics tend to agree and not because of sheer logistics but because our brains simply cannot cope with so many ‘acquaintances’.   Yes, that’s right, research reveals that the size of your ‘social circle’ does not necessarily reflect your personality/popularity nor your personal hygiene but is merely a limitation of your neocortex.

Yes, there’s actually a scientific reason as to why, as mammals, we’re unable to service multiple ‘meaningful’ relationships, it’s known as ‘Dunbar’s Number’ (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar) – that is the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom we can socially interact.  It’s believed that this limit (or capacity) is imposed by the neocortex (yes, that word again, basically, part of the brain). The magic number Dunbar’s research revealed is 148 (rounded up to 150) but before you start thinking that’s quite a few, the figure is actually based on the number of people you can actually be ‘aware’ of. E.g. relatives you know of, past and present lovers, friends, work colleagues, etc. It would be impossible for you to ‘socially service’ (meet, correspond with, love, hate) all of these people regularly/daily hence why we naturally select only a special few; our ‘social circle’.

Indeed, the level of ‘intimacy’ is measured by that ubiquitous ‘social circle’ that starts with the first five with whom we enjoy a relationship of trust, close intimacy, reciprocity and radiates out to the whole 100-150 people ranging from people you’d like to see once a week to those you’d be happy seeing just once a year.  Curiously, regardless of which ring of your circle these people might sit, you’ll still refer to them as friends (at least on Facebook anyway) but the reality is far different. As per the above exercise, when push comes to shove, how many of these acquaintances did you apply YES to and thus class as friends?  There’s a lot to be said for that old adage, “a friend will help you move… a really good friend will help you move a body”.

I’m definitely a fan of quality and not quantity. My personal preference is to live life where everything I do, the relationships I have are rewarding, meaningful and fulfilling. I literally do not have the time or the inclination for small talk or vacuous banter with as many people as possible.

A team at Reading University (yes, right here in good ole’ England) are actually conducting research in the Social Network phenomenon and the result so far show that sites such as Facebook and MySpace are actually contributing to the ‘weak ties’ that are people are forging around the globe, and that this could well be the next stage of our social evolution. Scary huh? What this actually means is that old movie favourite; “I’m surrounded by people yet I feel so alone” has never rung truer.

It’s one thing to add people as ‘friends’ to your social network but it’s another to actually express a regular interest in their life events, to nurture, love, support and, on some occasions, put your own life in danger to save theirs.

But is this, ultimately, down to terminology?  Linked in has ‘connections’, Twitter has ‘followers’ but Facebook  opted for ‘friends’ which implies that these ‘acquaintances’ mean more than they really do.

On the other hand, it has to be said that some  people don’t necessarily see Facebook as a ‘close friend’/ family tool, they add people whom they believe will enrich their ‘stream’ with interesting content, these same people may well, over time, become ‘closer’ to them. This is certainly a fashionable way of making new ‘friends’ but the fact remains that unless one is able to ‘socially service’ this contact on a regular basis then they remain not friends but acquaintances.

Whilst Facebook or indeed any other SNS (Social Network Site) will never replace the unique experience of meeting face to face and the reassurance of a physical hug, it is the nearest thing.  Our friends have the unique opportunity of letting us know that they may not be in our presence all the time or even regularly but that they care about us and are thinking of us.

Regulars of this blog will know that I joined Facebook somewhat reluctantly (see Facebook police) but I’ve since learned that there is more to the Social Network that meets the eye.  Granted, those practices that repelled me from joining sooner still go on today, e.g.  the mindless dimwits who continue to believe that  the rest of the world may be remotely interested in the tedious status update of “I’m bored” or perhaps  they might be riveted  with that old favourite post of “I fancy some chocolate”, followed shortly by the sequel, “I just ate some chocolate and it was yummy”.  However, I’ve come to learn that those distances that seemed interminable are easily bridged by the spontaneous act of posting a photograph of a day out with the family that, hours later, is viewed and appreciated by friends and distant relatives thousands of miles away or the heart-warming moment when you share news of a momentous event and it’s ‘liked’ by a friend you’d wished had been there to experience it with you but was unable.  The things that turn our world; good, bad, happy or sad, shared with the people that truly matter and, most importantly, we know care about what goes on in our life; our family and our intimate friends, those unique, rare and precious organic beings that, not unlike rare flowers, need regular care and attention, love and affection and in return give us the oxygen to go about living our time on this earth perhaps not in perpetual bliss but in warm glow of the knowledge that we’re not alone and that, no matter the distance, they’ll always be somebody there when needed the most.

Alas, as with most fairy tales, there’s always a villain. In this case, the new evolution of cyber apathy that is not restricted to your so called acquaintances but it also applies to family members.  That’s right, hard to believe but true. It appears that the ‘trigger’ for cyber-social interactivity is not always born from the need to engage with those nearest and dearest but that this has been superseded by the actual content of the interaction which, translated into English, actually means that it’s the subject and not the subject matter that generally engages our online interactivity. This is coupled with a good dose of that old fashioned ‘tit for tat’. E.g. you may have recently published photographs of a recent event of which you are most proud but the majority of your friends (and indeed family) may not have taken the time to ‘comment’ or ‘like’ (interact) in any way thereby acknowledging your accomplishment and, by association, expressing an interest. This can be hurtful. The real world equivalent would be for you to tell a friend or family member about something of importance and for them not to acknowledge this but to change subject instead. Of course, if this happened on a regular basis, it’s going to leave you feeling somewhat miffed.  In some scenarios, it also sows the seeds of cyber ‘tit for tat’; you didn’t comment on ‘my stuff’, I’m not going to comment on yours.  The result is the cyber equivalent of that ghost town with the main thoroughfare being the communication channels.

Which begs the question, if your so called Facebook friends are not showing an interest in, commenting on or contributing to the events that take place in your life, doesn’t that just make them a new breed of voyeur?

The ‘watchers’ are the people who like to know what’s going on in our lives by monitoring our news streams but never say a word, comment or ‘LIKE’.  What do these people get from this practice?   A practice that is clearly frowned upon by Facebook  executives who have implemented a policy of banning organisations from posing as individuals as it would enable employees from that organisation to monitor the personal details of an individual’s life..  Watched, not unlike Stalkers, sit in the shadows watching everything yet contributing nothing which begs the questions, why do we give these vultures the best seat in the theatre of our lives?   Is it simply to keep the friend number up?  Or is it that eternal belief that these individuals may actually be interested in you and your wellbeing?

In the real world, real friends, real people will ‘check in’ on you from time to time, it’s as simple as that. If they don’t, would you consider them a friend?

Let the culling begin!

The ‘defriend’ button must be the cyber equivalent of an ancient marauder,  ploughing through your friend list, lopping the heads of smiley photos and trampling over  that initial swell of pride you felt when your status read that you’d become friends with a person and several others.  Use it and find out just how many people are/were really interested in you and your life.  

Visit your ‘friend’ list and ‘unfriend’ all of those from whom you haven’t heard anything for a very long time, indeed those from whom you have not heard a thing since they opted to become a friend of yours. Then sit back and see how many of those people actually resend you a friend request. Indeed, sit and see how many of those will actually notice you’re no longer ‘connected’ to them.   Don’t be disheartened but the sad reality will be that only a very low percentage, if any, actually will notice and that’s not necessarily a reflection of you, your personality but simply the cyber eclectic disorder that many of us are contracting.  Be it articles from stumbleupon to momentous quotes that we might one day want to refer to.

And lastly, yesterday, I asked over 1,600 people if they’d be kind enough to contribute to a poll I was conducting about Facebook ‘friends’ and their interaction with your posts. Just 30 of you replied. 60% stated that less than 5% of their total Facebook friend list regularly interacted with their posts.

So, what are you going to do?  Are you going to keep the watchers in your life or are you going to visit your friend list and that ever so powerful ‘unfriend’ button?

The choice, as always, is yours.

3 Comments

  1. sel says:

    Perfect blog! I am already enjoying my new and improved reduction of 300 to 24… the worst thing is to bump into someone and them say ‘oh I saw that such and such happened to you’ and they didn’t bother to comment. There are far more positives, you just have to weed out the bad.
    PS. don’t delete me 😉

  1. […] friends, since we all know that it is physically impossible to interact with all of these people (see Facebook Friends. Isn’t it time for a good culling?). I do it because I’m a social kind of guy who has a genuine interest in people, human nature and […]

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