The Internet and social media have totally destroyed the meaning of the word “friend” and even changed it from a noun to a verb. On Twitter and MySpace, many young people follow hundreds of friends before age twenty, all without ever having said or heard a word from most of them. Top Facebook users proudly proclaim their “whale” status, with 5,000 friends or more.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t confuse online friends with real friendships. Real friends help each other. In my experience, many of the people who “friend” me online today have only their interests in mind, and they aren’t interested in knowing me or helping me at all.
According to most dictionary definitions, a friend is a person you know well and regard with affection and trust. This definition seems totally lost on many people today. I think it’s impossible to know, like, and trust someone you have never met. Maybe that’s why so many people are hurt or defrauded every day by someone they assumed was their “friend” on the Internet.
So how many friends are enough for people? I did some scouting through the Internet to find any academic studies on the subject, and here are a few tidbits:
- Everyone needs at least one friend. Most psychologists agree that starting from a very young age, a friend is critical to building social skills, and help develop a balanced view of morality, integrity, and right versus wrong. That’s why good parents play an active role in selecting others for their children to interact with as friends.
- Limits of the human brain. Robin Dunbar, Oxford professor and anthropologist has posed a theory that the number of friends is limited by the size of the human brain, specifically the neocortex. “Dunbar’s number,” as this hypothesis has become known, is 150. Facebook cuts you off now if you try to exceed 5,000.
- With age, count becomes less important than quality. By the time we reach 30 years of age, our desire to socialize and maintain friendships already is shrinking, according to a study by psychologists at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). Having fewer friends is often viewed as a good thing, and good friends are the real value.
- Trusted friends are on the decline in our society. Between 1985 and 2004, according to a survey by Duke and the University of Arizona, people with no trusted friends doubled, and now totals almost one quarter of the population. I guess this is more a statement of a decline in overall values rather than people not needing trusted friends.
- Although total friends are up, the number of confidants is down. Only trusted friends can become confidants. In the same survey above, people also admitted that confidants are down even more than trusted friends, by almost a third. To me, this follows from earlier points – it is hard to have confidants when you don’t have friendships.
In these days of social networking and business networking, it seems that all cultural pressures point to more friends as being better. Yet lots of people like me, who are not so gregarious, find that real friendships take lots of energy. One is probably enough, and I can only handle a few comfortably. More leads to stress and drama.
With business clients and even peers that you believe are friends, you also have to remember not to break the first rule of business relationships, which is to quickly spill your troubles. In a business context in the real world, this is usually taken as a sign of weakness. Expose yourself to family and real friends; otherwise, keep on your happy face.
So one of these days, when you are texting your “BFF” (best friend forever), that you have never met, think about the meaning as well as the words you use. I fear that real friendships may be slipping from our grasp, and that is sad.
Friendship is the glue of meaningful personal relationships and the lubrication that expedites business transactions. It’s not the number of friends, but the quality of the friendship that makes the difference. If you don’t want to be alone despite many friends, spend more time on quality, and less time counting.