To Friend or not to Friend, that is the Question?

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and who hasn’t, you may recall running across Oxford Professor Robin Dunbar’s famous “Social Brain Hypothesis,” in which he posits that 150 is the average size of a group that is manageable for the human brain.

Dunbar and his researchers found numerous examples of social groups of about 150, where that was the ideal managable size, including church congregations, sustainable military units, and guild members in some on-line video games.

As someone who spent my entire vocational life serving as a leader in congregations this has the ring of truth about it. Relationships in a congregation are pretty complex, but it is clear to me that each member has a different set of layered friendships. This fits with Dunbar’s findings. His team found a pattern where each person has five intimate friends, 15 close friends, around fifty in the next layer, and finally the 150 of the whole group.

This got me ruminating about Facebook, the popular social networking utility. Founded in 2003 at Harvard, Facebook expanded to other colleges in the Boston area, then to Ivy League Colleges and Stanford, and finally opened up to anybody over 13.

My tribe, the Baby Boomers, have discovered it with a vengeance. This has caused ticklish situations for the kids who still think of it as their space, and leave pictures of bongs, beer pong competitions, and their classy Cinco de Mayo tequila shot contest posted on their Facebook wall for Mom and Dad (not to mention prospective employers) to view.

Facebook now has over 300 million members world-wide and is growing, which means you may get “friended” any minute by people from High School that you haven’t seen in four decades. I joined a few months ago, and have already just broken the 200 friends mark, which according to Dunbar’s hypothesis, is too many for my brain to manage (and my brain is injured, which makes it even tougher.)

Facebook cross references your connections and suggests friends for you, and you soon realize that you know a lot of people. But are they really your friends? Do you want them in your life, even your on-line one? So to friend or not to friend, that is the question?

As a public service to my readers I offer you these guidelines:

  • Accept all friend requests if you actually know the person. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people accept a friend request, and their first communication is “Do I know you?” Awkward!
  • Don’t drink and friend. My son taught me this one, so now when I’ve been dipping into the single malt late at night I refrain from making friending decisions. This eliminates next day friending remorse.
  • Don’t over-reach. Some people like to friend everybody they can find in the world who shares their name, which might be OK if your name is Melchior Kwitkor, but unruly if it’s John Smith. Best to avoid this one.
  • Don’t pad your friends list by friending or “fanning” a lot of celebrities and groups. If you love Van Morrison (I do) fine, become his friend (bad example, he probably doesn’t have one), but don’t become friends with the Sons of Lithuania unless you are actually Lithuanian.
  • Don’t friend your kids’ friends unless you are actually friends with them. Otherwise, it’s just sketchy.
  • Ask yourself, “If I actually saw this person “in person,” would we have anything to say to each other?”
  • Ask yourself, “Would I want to have lunch with this person?”
  • Ask yourself, “If I still sent out Christmas cards, would this person be on my list?”
  • Don’t friend old girlfriends or boyfriends. It’s just not a good idea. (See “Don’t Drink and Friend,” above)
  • Don’t friend people you really don’t like. My kids call these “frenemies,” a distinction lost on me.
  • Don’t get all competitive about collecting friends. You’ll end up with way too many and you will begin to hate your Facebook page.

How many is too many? About 150.

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