Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Are Dunbar's Friends on Facebook?

Back in high school, I remember a teacher explaining Dunbar's Number to us. At least, I'm assuming it was Dunbar she was referring to, seeing as I can't find anything that uses the same terms she did. She explained how we have different levels of friendships, and there is a general (albeit flexible) number the average person has of each type of friend. Since I couldn't find the exact drawing she used, I've created my own, from memory, using Dunbar's numbers as a guide.

I used to take this very literally and would try to place each individual friend into these categories. Who were my intimate friends? (I'm not even sure I had the capacity to understand true intimacy at 16, no offence to other more mature 16 year olds.) In fact, other graphs I've seen for Dunbar's Number include a middle number between 15-35, which if memory serves me, my teacher called that the number of 'friends' leaving anyone outside number 35 in the 'acquaintance' circle. I took that very literally too, and for years secretly considered many people 'acquaintances' who maybe were slightly closer to 'friends', simply because they were outside that magic number.

Perhaps you think I am now going to attempt to debunk Dunbar's Number based on this. Au contraire, mes amis. I am no studied anthropologist. His reasoning was based on research into brain size, the neocortex, and all kinds of junk I don't understand. I'm not disagreeing with him at all. Considering I can't find any graphs that explain the levels of friendships anyway, it may not even be Dunbar who deciphered them. He basically conjectured that according to brain size, human beings are only capable of maintaining actual friendships with about 150 people. And I think he's pretty close to right.

According to Facebook, I have 672 Friends. About half of those 'Friends' are people I have zero contact with - and that includes Facebook contact. So bringing that number down to 336, of those 'Friends' I have contact with, there are people that I know only through work but not in any kind of social setting, people I went to high school with but would probably not even recognize on the street, people I used to work with or socialize with but no longer see (and some I'd probably rather not see even if I did), people I don't particularly like but want to keep tabs on for gossips' sake, and people I genuinely like and would love to keep in contact with, but they do not acutally spend any time on Facebook and therefore I have no contact with.

I'm not going to sit down and count out what number that leaves me with, but an educated guess would be, oh, about 150 people I actually consider a friend.

In the graph, I've assigned numbers to roughly how many people fit into those very fluid categories. These numbers are determined by so many different factors that they are indeed VERY rough. Factors influencing these numbers include individual personalities, amount of contact (including online) available, size of social arena, and certainly countless others. But on average, this is probably about right.

I've always had a hang-up about best friends. I'm constantly wondering, 'Do I have a best friend? Am I that person's best friend back?' I blame elementary school. I often try to pinpoint who my 'best friends' are by thinking, 'If I were having a wedding, who would be my bridesmaids?' It's pretty pathetic. It's also pretty useless.

Because - and finally we get to the real point of this post - each friendship is so different, it's nearly impossible to place them all into one ring of the circle. Not to mention how fluid friendships are too. A person who was yesterday in our circle of 150 Friends may share a meaningful experience with us, and suddenly they are amongst one of your 15 Close Personal Friends. A Close Personal Friend (CPF) may fall out with us and the rift is so deep that they end up quickly on the outer perimeter of merely Friend, or worse, an Acquaintance. Intimates are our most stable and non-fluid members of the circle, but even they can move about. A husband, a once absolute Intimate, discovers his wife has been cheating on him, and within seconds he becomes a distant Acquaintance. Which begs the question, was he ever an Intimate at all? Was she his Intimate but not he hers? Or would she still call him an Intimate while at the same time knowingly hurting him? Is that possible amongst Intimates? Is this possible amongst friends at all?  A different subject for next time perhaps - Part 2.

Not only are people in our lives able to easily move in and out of easily-definable rings, there are people who don't fit neatly at all in any one place. Let's use a personal example. I have a friend namd Lee*. I don't see her often (I mean, when I lived in Scotland, I didn't see her often). We didn't text or call each other regularly. We were lucky to get together every few months for a single night. When we did get together though, there were no holds barred. We could easily talk about intimate details in our lives, and share things with each other we maybe didn't share with everyone else. We have an incredible amount in common with each other, and an incredible amount of things completely unlike each other. I'd say we genuinely loved each other. But after the occasional night passed, it might be three more months before we did it or even spoke again.

There is no easily-definable ring in my graph to put Lee in. She is one of those friends that fits all and none of the descriptions.

In the real world, we bond with people while simultaneously distancing from others, almost always without even realizing it. We cannot help it.  By focusing attention on one relationship we inevitably leave another behind.  We place different priorities on relationships at different times, and move around in relationships all the time. As Dunbar asserts, our minds are not capable of sustaining an unlimited number of friendships all at once. Or, to clarify, sustaining an unlimited number of meaningful friendships. That's where the Facebook subject comes in again. Are my 672 Facebook friendships meaningful? I know they are not, but does everyone realize this? I appreciate my Facebook-only friends; those people from distant odd corners of my life who comment regularly on my posts, read my blog, like my pictures and occasionally send me a PM. I really like those people and enjoy having them in my Facebook life. Truthfully though, they are not the people who I'd reach out to in their darkest moments, nor would they reach out to me in mine. And that is completely acceptable. We do not have the capacity, nor the obligation, to reach out to each and every person we know in each and every detail of their lives. Hopefully, we all have some sort of circle of CPFs who are there for those purposes. Now and again, a distant friend's plight will touch our hearts, and we will extend our empathy and care to them. But not always. And that's not bad; it's biological.

Dunbar's Number has been questioned especially in this age of social networking. Can we have more than approximately 150 friends? Possibly. Can we have an unlimited number of genuine relationships? I think not.

Prof. Dunbar isn't sold on the idea that social networks make his number outdated. The research, he says, "made us realize people don't know what these wretched things called relationships are -- and that helps explain why we're so bad at them."

I appreciate and enjoy all the good relationships in my life. I hope I recognize rightly the ones that are the most true and worthy of my special care against the ones that ought to remain pleasantly superficial. I like the varied and intricate ways my relationships flex and flow. I'd like to think that I am only getting better at these things called relationships, though I am no fool and know I fail repeatedly.

And I love that there are people in those innermost rings of my life who can accept that and love me all the same.

*I chose Lee Trotter as the example because today is her birthday, and because she gave me the topic of 'Different Friendships' to write about today.

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