From a couple of different places, I came across this Mashable article, “Your Brain Can’t Handle Your Facebook Friends,” suggests that according to Dunbar’s number, the number of people you can really be “friends” with is 150. This reminds me of article by Clive Thompson in the current issue of WIRED, “In Praise of Obscurity,” in which he talks about how when an audience becomes too large, it no longer is “social.” He uses the example of a popular Twitter-er (???) named Maureen Evans who started tweeting recipes, became hugely popular (13,000 followers), and said the conversation between users just stopped. I’ll post a link once WIRED puts one up, probably when the next issue comes out.
First off, I blogged about this very phenomenon back in 2007 here, in talking about both Facebook and also EMUTalk.org and my struggling (dying?) “Blogs as Writerly Spaces” project. (Perhaps I can count this post as something that will allow me to check off “worked on scholarship today” from my to do list.) As I noted back then, since I think the readership of this blog is generally pretty small, I don’t need a lot of rules; on the other hand, with EMUTalk.org, especially when it was routinely getting 600-1000 hits a day (that’s fallen off to about half of that now), I did indeed need to set up rules. In that sense, the Dunbar number seems to be about a threshold for organization as much as anything else. If you have a group of people who like to play ultimate frisbee or pick-up basketball or softball every Friday night at a particular park and that group is less than 150 or so people, then you probably don’t need much in the ways of “rules.” But if that group gets above 150, then I suspect you need to start forming a “league” with organized teams, schedules, etc.
Second, this all begs once again the definition of “friend,” something that has been a little easier to sort out with Facebook as of late thanks to its new “list” feature. I think in the context of Facebook, people have basically over-valued and/or misinterpreted the word “friend.” In “real life,” I think of a friend as someone I either know quite well and engage in activities with on a regular basis (e.g., family friends, golfing friends, people I invite to my house for a party or something, etc.), people I know pretty well but only catch up with once in a while (e.g., many/most people at work, friends who live some distance away, etc.), or people I still know but are from a more distant past and who I haven’t necessarily even spoken with in some time. This last category is a big one on Facebook: we all have “friended” people from high school or college who we haven’t seen or spoken with in decades and who we aren’t especially interested in reconnecting with in “real life” again now, but who are still a kind of friend.
I have “real life” friends on Facebook, but besides “real” friends, most of my Facebook friends fall into the categories of “colleagues in my field,” people at EMU, and/or students. No offense to any of these folks, but that y’all aren’t really my friends in the real world friend sense, right?
Third, I guess the other thing that comes up especially in the Thompson article is my concept/understanding of who I am “speaking” with when I post online, be that space on Facebook, Twitter, this or some other blog. This may be kind of “old skool,” but I still work from the assumption that anything I post online has the potential to be read by anyone on the planet; therefore, I would never post any sort of personal thing which I would be concerned about some stranger reading. You’re not going to get any “weird rash on my hands not going away” posts from me (btw, I have no rashes). And if I post something like “ate tuna sandwich,” it is only because I don’t really care if anyone knows that I ate a tuna sandwich.
The tricky thing about this is trying to figure out those borders between the actually personal, the things you really would only tell to close friends, and everything else. This is nothing new, of course; what makes it a little different now is that the sheer volume of people on networks like Facebook means that there is inevitably a learning curve for both writers and readers about the shifting definition of “Too Much Information.” I mean, I have FB “friends” who do seem to think that posting about that mysterious rash is fair game; conversely, I also have FB “friends” who would comment on my lunch selection “Ew, TMI.” So it goes with emerging medias, right?
BTW, today I’m going to have left-over pork loin for lunch. If it isn’t too freezer-burned.