Imaginary friends: is social networking fooling you?

A recent study offered new information (as recent studies always do) that human beings are incapable of having more than 150 friends, and that the majority of people on Facebook are actually kidding themselves if they think they really do have five thousand of the buggers. I’m talking to you, Tila Tequila.

This did rather alarm me. Firstly because I thought that we were officially humanly capable of having 300 friends (that’s what the last, slightly less recent study said anyway), but mainly this bothered me because I’m a social networking slag (and a social slag in general) who only has to meet someone once and like them before I add them on Facebook.

So, with this in mind, I thought I’d have quick whizz through my friends list and see if I could prove this so-called study wrong. Just because people who spend all their time doing studies don’t have any friends, that doesn’t mean the rest of us have the same problem.

First, though, I had to settle on the term ”˜friend’. I decided that this should mean someone I would happily do a favour for, or ask a favour from, in real life and without a second thought.

So, I armed myself with this theoretical scenario:

I imagined I had cat. Then imagined that I was going on holiday, and there was nobody around to feed it – I mean ”˜him”˜ (theoretical cats are people too). In order to fit the friend criteria, the people I was looking for would be the ones I would happily trouble by asking them to come round and feed it (if they theoretically lived nearby, obviously), trusting them not to think I was being a cheeky bitch, and trusting them not to be appalled by the state of my house. And then, I would have to imagine that this situation was reversed, and that I would also do the same for them.

As there are around 800 people in my friends list – from an extended music community, work, education, social and virtual life – and I don’t dislike any of them (including the ones I don’t really know), I couldn’t imagine that the number of people I would happily ring up out of the blue would be any less than about half that number.

Yep, I was pretty confident.

So, here are the results:

After a quick scroll through the list, and excluding family members and profiles that aren’t actually people, the number of ”˜friends’ I would actually impose myself on is”¦

”¦ a mere 162.

Not quite what I expected. So what does it mean? Not just for me, I can’t be the only one who dismissed these recent findings, only to realise that their virtual friendships lull them into a false sense of popularity.

Well, looking at the rest of my own list, it probably means that meeting someone once or twice doesn’t mean one feels qualified to bother them in real life. Facebook friendships aren’t a false intimacy exactly, but they are incorrectly labeled as friendships when they’re actually more like being in a crowded pub with a load of people you’re acquainted with to varying degrees.

With most of us being too busy, or too far away, to see the people we know on a regular basis, it’s often spouted by webphobes that social networking is killing real life social interaction.

But even though I was surprised at the conversion gap between my online friendships and my real life ones, I don’t buy the idea that social networking is having a negative impact on our ability to make real friends in 3D.

Instead, it’s the use of the word ”˜friends’ that I think I contest. We need another word for the relationships we have with people online that, although friendly, don’t necessarily translate into automatic kinship.

Any suggestions?

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5 comments on “Imaginary friends: is social networking fooling you?”

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  1. I think youre right about the term ‘friend’ being at fault on facebook. I have 148 people on facebook (so technically within the limit set by this recent study) but thats made up of various different types of people, not all of whom fit into the definition of ‘friend’, but I can justify why they are all on my friends list.

    However, I always take studys that make sweeping generalisations about people with a pinch of salt. Some folks just move in wider social circles than others and can form genuine friendships with more people, others stick with a tightly knit core of mates.

  2. Personally I’ve currently got about 710 ‘friends’ on Facebook, many many of whom I don’t actually ‘know’, although it has been useful for catching up with and keeping in touch with folks I’ve not seen for 30 odd years, eg, from the old punk scene, etc. However for me its also proved to be a useful networking tool for marketing courses, publications and finding work, plus sharing information and contacts about Permaculture and other interesting stuff. I think its a misnomer to describe the people one is connected with via FB as ‘friends’, but don’t most people know that? Its like the ‘like’ button – of course I don’t ‘like’ it when I get information about, say, the death of a mutual aquaintance from 20 years back, but I’ll click the ‘like’ button so that I can follow the thread and find out more details… Maybe FB just need to rename a few things to more accurately describe or them??

  3. I agree with the label friends but this study does have some pretty solid background. There’s a book that went into great detail (I’ll have to dig the name out and post it) which looked into all kinds of different cultures to study the behaviours of tribes, villages, communities and individuals etc.
    They found that a person couldn’t manage regular interaction in the manner of what is defined as a friend with more than 150 people because they didn’t have time.
    Interestingly it also found that in tribal communities, once a village or tribe got to around 150 there was a schism; with a small group (not necessarily the outsiders or most recent additions) breaking off to form their own community. This then grew, flourished and eventually went through the same pattern.
    It was probably written by people with no friends themselves but they did observe lots of different cultures to come to this rather than the 67% of statisticians which make it up on the spot. I expect the 150 is an average figure but when I looked into it I found that I only managed circa 150 from the 400 or so that are on my Facebook

  4. When I first got on Facebook I was determined to only add “actual friends”, and the definition I came up with was a little more crude if less demanding than Kate’s: “would this person look out for me if I got really messed up on a night out, and vice versa”. (I think the criterion was actually the even cruder “would they hold my hair back if I was being sick”, but that says more about the general state I was in four years ago than anything). I cheerfully denied requests from people I vaguely knew on the grounds that the personal updates I was putting on my status were none of their fucking business. These days the list still exists (80-ish people) as a subgroup of my total 350-ish “friends”; it means I have to think a little before posting anything personal, and ensure I’ve only made it available to the restricted group.

    What changed? The death of Myspace, basically. Up until about the end of 2009 I continued to use Myspace as a music blog and general means of communication or “online office” for our website: news stories, reviewer access, everything came through there. My music blog, which ran on Myspace from the start of 2006 to the start of 2010, also served as a point of contact for other mates – outside of the day job and a few old college mates, pretty much everyone I know is through the music scene, either people I know from gigs (various specific bands or just Manchester gigs in general) or because they are in or work with bands or press / media. I had no need to allow drummers I’d spoken to twice / promoters of club nights / other local music writers / people I only ever saw down the front at Half Man Half Biscuit gigs access to my Facebook page.

    But as the shift away from Myspace gathered pace (even up until this time last year pretty much every band had one) and the growing quantity of retina-troubling advert flashes made even my own relatively tastefully designed page a deeply unpleasant experience, I had to relax the rules and let them in. I still deny most requests from people I don’t actually know in person, or if I don’t recognise them, and I’m getting used to running a two-tier Facebook page that doubles as both my online living room and my online pub/office – something I reckon more people should think about, really. I appear to know about 350 people, which sounds about right (given that I don’t add people from the day job as what I do when I am not there is not their concern) – and whilst I genuinely have no interest in the fact that someone I used to occasionally co-promote gigs with about three years ago got stuck on a broken-down bus yesterday, I’d still quite like to know if he has any decent band nights coming up.

    I do find the use of the word “friend” in the social networking context rather tacky, on top of which it makes it all the more easy for the deniers and refuseniks to sneer at those of us who do use such networks (being in my late 30s with quite a few friends older than me, I know quite a few people who have no desire to use the internet as anything more than an information resource, if at all). I’m not sure what was wrong with the literal and appropriate word used in email systems since they were invented: “contacts”. And one more thing, social platform developers: “friend” is not, never has been, and never will be, a verb.

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