Using friend as a verb is a recent phenomenon, thanks to Facebook. According to recent studies by the Pew Research Center, Facebook users average about 338 friends each. Some people attempt to accumulate friends like other people collect movie ticket stubs: for no real reason except it seems fun to have so many. Having friends on Facebook begets more friends as friends of friends send further friend requests. Like cellular mitosis, that little circle of a few Facebook friends can morph into a much larger mass and become, ultimately, less manageable and decidedly less intimate. Rampant friend requests pose the question: how many people can you realistically be friends with?
In 1993 Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University College of London, conducted research to determine the cognitive limits of a person’s effective real world social network, where individuals know who each person in that network is and how each relates to every other person. His research was based primarily on animal and primate interactions. But Dunbar’s analysis and theories have since been applied in psychological and sociological circles and have given rise to “Dunbar’s number.” That limit, it seems, is about 150 people including your favorite barista, the gas station attendant, your boss, your employees, people you attend church and social functions with, classmates, and so on. But that’s just the limit of people you can maintain stable relationships with, much less friendship.
If Professor Dunbar is right, our brains just aren't big enough to hold all the information necessary to maintain relationships with hundreds or even thousands of people. In today’s ever-hectic society, it seems as though brain capacity isn’t the only issue. It takes time to cultivate friendship. In a verb world, friending is a simple click taking only seconds to bridge a connection. In a noun world, being a friend requires an real investment of time.
When you reflect on your hundreds or thousands of friends on Facebook, how many of those would take you to the airport to catch a 6:00 AM flight on a Wednesday? If you lost your job, how many of those friends would you actually pick up the phone to call and not just inform with a Facebook status update?
It’s estimated that the average American spends about 37 minutes on social media each day. That’s a full day each month spent cultivating relationships in front of a screen. Cumulatively, Americans spend 115 billion minutes each month on Facebook. Just Americans. Just Facebook.
As we struggle to keep up with our hundreds and sometimes thousands of "friends" on Facebook, are we sacrificing time that could otherwise be invested in being a real friend? Is it possible that the larger your “network" the shallower your connections become? By immersing ourselves in social media, are we choosing the quantity of friends over the quality?
Having lots of friends and dozens of “likes” on your Facebook status can be a feel-good confidence boost. But when things get tough, status likes and virtual comments won’t replace a real shoulder to lean on. Being a real friend takes time. And as the saying goes, the best time to make friends is before you need them. What can you do today to invest in your real friends?
Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best selling author of over 26 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment. This article features excerpts from Dr. Jantz's book Hooked.