Ed. Note: Following some technical difficulties and with Internet Week looming, I've decided to pull a few of my favorite tech-related posts to share with you while I wrap up prepping for my own talk next week. This post was originally published on June 4th, 2010.
How many Facebook friends do you have? 500? 2500? 5000? Why stop at all? Why not 10,000? Well, actually, Facebook caps the total number of friends you can have at 5000, so it might make for some awkwardness as you explain to friend no. 5001 that while you're connected, you can't acknowledge your deep and meaningful relationship on Facebook. So what would you do? Start a new Facebook profile? (If you do, don't let Facebook know.) A recent article in the New York Times explores our need to connect expansively and discusses the strategies employed by a few to keep their numbers high.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, provided some suggestions about how to understand the nature of connectivity in relationships. In a rather roundabout way, she seemed to be saying that users shouldn't necessarily friend everyone who submits a request. She proposed that while the average user may have many connections, he or she is only engaged with a percentage of that group, known as the active network. What makes the active network unique is the way the user interacts with members of this group—particularly vis the stream feature which allows members of the active network to see what the user is doing and vice versa, and provides opportunities for members and the user to interact over shared events and interests. The heart of the message seems to be that users should focus on building active networks. Sandberg trots out some neat charts, but ultimately fails to answer the question of how many friends a person can have—on Facebook, yes, but perhaps also in real life.
I admit that I am no where near my 5000 friend limit, and the friends I do have are organized into lists that allow me to control their access to specific parts of my profile. But for others, the limit is an irritating reminder that one's network can indeed grow too large (at least by Facebook's standards). One user I know of has a separate account, with a note on the first Facebook profile indicating where new connections can find him. In the NYT article, a user noted that he tried arbitrarily deleting a friend to add another, but found it difficult to actually sever the connection. It seems in this age of digital connectivity, we have developed a form of virtual separation anxiety.
Why is it so difficult to cull our friend lists? One user describes spending the hours between 10 pm and 1 am on average tending to his Facebook connections. (I'm usually reading and or writing at this time. No judgment; someone could easily look at this time and wonder why I would want to spend my precious post-work time doing more work.) Relationships take work, but what are the effects of spending so much time tending our virtual networks? While some conceive of the need to connect as a new version of the high school popularity contest, I think that perhaps it goes deeper than that. In this age where connectivity is often taken for granted, the lists of friends we can generate seem to validate more than our likability. They are a testament to our social savvy, and provide us with an imaginary cushion of cheerleaders. Landed a big client? Had a good meeting? Overcame a personal challenge? Post it—share it in some way and wait for the accolades to come in. We're all performers online, after all. There's the dramatic, the sullen, the petulant, the celebratory, the satisfied—you name it, there has been or is a status/post/Tweet to match. Remember my intro to Durkheim? The network may have moved online, but its obligations remain.
The loss of the relationship may not be the issue in culling friend lists. It may be more an issue of the loss of an audience member.
How many friends do you have and how do you manage them?