Over on Facebook I see a fair number of people linking to the story that although the average Facebook user has 155 “friends” on Facebook, there are also on average only four of those “friends” that a Facebook user would call in a genuine crisis, suggesting that just because you are “friends” with someone on Facebook, it doesn’t mean you are actual friends with them in the real world.
My thoughts on this:
One, hey, having four people you can reach out to in an actual crisis is a pretty good number;
Two, I’m not sure why this is at all surprising to anyone at all. Just because Facebook calls its connection mechanism “friending” doesn’t mean that everyone you connect with there are actual friends; they’re merely people who, for one reason or another, you’ve decided to connect with on a social media network. It’s not in the least relevatory to me that the number of “friends” one has on social media doesn’t make much difference to the number of people you consider actual friends, or the number of people who would help you bury the proverbial body.
Here’s a thing about social media, in my experience of it. The people (or entities) one follows on it tends to be part of three groups which overlap but are not exactly the same: The people one cares about, the people one knows of, and the people who one is entertained by. Only one group of these is properly friends; the other groups may or may not be acquaintances, and their presence in one’s feed comes down to the fact that most of us like to have a varied mix of things to look at when we sign on and scroll down. Someone does not need to be your friend to entertain you, either by telling you tidbits of their own life or by putting up links to material they’ve found online that they find interesting.
Can people you otherwise do not know become your friend through online interaction? Sure, although (also in my experience) eventually it helps to make an offline connection as well, to confirm that the comfort level you have with them isn’t just an artifact of online presentation and the fact that it’s mediated in a way that face-to-face encounters aren’t. I have a number of friends I’ve met online. I’m not going to rely on any of them to bury a body with me until we have that click in the offline world.
But then again, how many people do you need to be willing to help you in a crisis? Four really does seem sufficient in most cases. Likewise, if you have two or three dozen people you would call your true friends, well. That seems a lucky amount to me. That’s a person a day for a month you’d be delighted to hang out and spend time with and involve in your various shenanigans. That’s a full life right there, folks.
My personal Facebook feed has (currently) 641 people in it, most of them people who I’ve known personally (meaning, actual physical face-to-face time) at some point in my life, starting from elementary school and moving through my life now as a writer and author. Are they all my friends? Well, some were friends back in the day, and might be friends again if I got to spend face time with them in the physical world. Some are people I’ve more recently met who I would like think could become friends with me if circumstances allowed.
Not everyone of my Facebook Friends is a current friend, but the way I curate that list, the potential for friendship is there, at least. One of the reasons to connect on Facebook is to keep that potential humming along, through the exhibition of pictures and news about our lives. This qualifies as mutual entertainment as well; I like knowing about them and I hope they like knowing about me.
But I don’t expect the vast majority of my Facebook cohort to feel obliged to help me in a crisis. It seems a little much for me to pick up the phone and expect the guy I knew best when we were in elementary school to drop everything and tend to me. And maybe he would! But it seems a lot to ask. I save that for the few people that I already know are there for me in that capacity (and for whom I’m willing to serve in that capacity as well). It’s more than four, I’m happy to say, but not so much more than four that it invalidates the general concept.
The article I linked to above says “The results suggest that people with hundreds of Facebook friends are kidding themselves if they think they can maintain a network so large.” Well, no. They’re not kidding themselves if, one,and again, they realize that just because Facebook calls their connection “friending” it does not oblige them to actually be friends, and two, if they recognize that some people they’ve “friended” are there to be entertainment (and for whom they are likewise entertainment).
And there’s not a thing wrong with that! Thank you, Facebook friends, for entertaining me with your lives and links. I hope I do likewise. And don’t worry that I’ll send a message asking for money, or a kidney, or for you to show up somewhere in the middle of a rainstorm with a shovel and several gallons of lye. Most of you will never get that call. I think you’re happy about that, or should be, anyway.