Scrolling through the ever-changing Facebook interface, one sees people with extraordinarily high friend counts. Personally, I have only seen one with more than 3,000, but I am willing to accept that at least one user (if not many more) has pushed the envelope to its furthest extreme.
Ask most people in the real (i.e., geological) world how many friends they have and they will usually pitch relatively low numbers at you. They will say something like, "Of TRUE friends, only a few." I think we have all heard this before; and a lot of us may have also said this. I have.
But only to five thousand of my closest friends.
We want to show our values vis-à-vis friendship. We do not want to be known as people who casually (or frenetically as I have witnessed) go around adding hundreds of friends at random. We will say that our GOOD friends are people who know us well, who we trust. It therefore must be a small number in order to safeguard one's dignity.
But then walks in British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. His 1992 study, using primates who gather into groups of friends to pick lice out of each other's hair, came up with an extrapolated figure for the maximum amount of friends with whom humans can maintain a social relationship.
Dunbar's number is 148.
This means that we limited humans cannot know each member, and how each member reacts with each other, in a group greater than 148. Apparently, beyond this number the neocortex starts smoking and setting off alarm bells. My "friend" list on Facebook is just under three hundred. That means about 152 of you are not being processed.
The question, as my enquiring friend Simon posed it recently, is about the criteria we set for calling someone a friend. Have they changed? Are we generally less picky than once we were? Do we feel so much more evolved as to be able to stretch our neocortices to the point of bursting? Or is it that the term friend has become outmoded and useless, like the word "nice"? Nice, by the way, derives from the Latin word nescius, meaning ignorant, foolish, or silly.
Cynic that I usually am, I tend to think that we have just become a little heavy-handed and glib with the appellation of friend. There may be 300 people, or even 3,000, that I like or have met and with whom I have been favorably impressed, but I would be hard put to hang the label of friend around their necks. Firstly, how many of those 3,000 even remember me? Can they be MY friends if I am not theirs? Friendship is usually more of a two-way street, I fancy.
But on Facebook, we can ALL be friends! It is a merry little solipsistic utopia in which anyone whose post I have liked might instantly become my friend. Since this is absurd, I think we need an evolutionarily advanced term for this new breed of friends. Rather than calling them "friends," for example, we should say they are "People In a Network Having Expanded Anthropological Dimensions."
This much more descriptive acronym could suffice to cover the extra 152 people in my list and the 4,852 extra PINHEADs on the envelope-pusher's list.