Do You Have Too Many Facebook Friends?


The average Facebook user now has about 338 friends, though the median number is quite a bit lower: 200. This means that while half of all Facebook users have 200 or fewer friends, many of the billion-plus Facebookers have quite a few more. In fact, 15 percent of users have friend lists topping 500. That’s a lot of virtual acquaintances, but consider that Facebook lets you keep piling on the friends until you hit a ceiling of 5000about the population of Milton, Wisconsin.

For most of us, 5000 Facebook friends will sound like way too many. But where is the tipping point? According to Robin Dunbar, an Oxford University anthropologist who studies social networks, any grouping larger than about 150 starts to strain the cognitive capacity of the human brain. Basing this figure (dubbed “Dunbar’s Number” in the 1990s) on research into the brains and social habits of primates, Dunbar argues that we cannot effectively manage relationships with many hundreds of people. This goes for real-world friends as well as online relations:

"The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends, but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world," Dunbar told the London-based Sunday Times. "People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they're unlikely to be bigger than anyone else's."

This finding suggests that it doesn’t really matter how many friends you accept into your online communities: the number of people you actually interact with will stay constant. The phenomenon is a bit like having three dozen sweaters in your closet: chances are you probably have a half-dozen favorites that see the most daylight. But too many friends, like too many sweaters, can clutter up your life. Extraneous clothing takes up space in your bureau and extraneous friends clog your newsfeed. It may not seem like a major problem to encounter the odd kitten photo from a high-school friend you don’t quite remember when you log on to Facebook, but add up all those irrelevant kitten posts over number of friends and time spent hitting the down-arrow on your keyboard, and you start to see how your brain may be bombarded with tons of irrelevant information.

For Maria Konnikova, writing at the New Yorker, there may be a more significant downside:

With social media, we can easily keep up with the lives and interests of far more than a hundred and fifty people. But without investing the face-to-face time, we lack deeper connections to them, and the time we invest in superficial relationships comes at the expense of more profound ones. We may widen our network to two, three, or four hundred people that we see as friends, not just acquaintances, but keeping up an actual friendship requires resources. “The amount of social capital you have is pretty fixed,” Dunbar said. “It involves time investment. If you garner connections with more people, you end up distributing your fixed amount of social capital more thinly so the average capital per person is lower.” If we’re busy putting in the effort, however minimal, to “like” and comment and interact with an ever-widening network, we have less time and capacity left for our closer groups.

Konnikova notes Dunbar’s estimate that “we spend sixty per cent of our time” with close circles of friends and spend forty percent with our wider sphere of 150. “Social networks may be growing our base, and, in the process, reversing that balance,” she writes.

Is Facebook messing with our intimacy balance, as Konnikova suggests? If the site is taking us away from meaningful relationships with our family and closest friends and thrusting us into hours of diddling in an online “community” not worthy of the name, we really do have something to worry about. Some Facebook users may be trading face-to-face time for face-to-screen time, depriving themselves of the benefits of real human interaction: talking, touching, simply being with friends and loved ones.

I think these worries are a bit overblown. Yes, the digital age has probably pushed us too far toward interaction with devices. Yes, family dinners and walks in nature should be gadget-free zones to give people a chance to escape the pings and glare of our smartphones. But Facebook is not the only culprit drawing us to leer downward at the smartphone screen. Email is almost certainly the biggest one, haunting us day and night. (Clive Thompson has one interesting proposal to ease that burden.) General web browsing is another.

And Facebook is arguably the best place one might turn while thumbing around on a little screen, if you use it smartly. Think about it: the social networking site is useful in tons of ways that go well beyond scrolling through kitten or omelette photos. First, of course, Facebook lets you “like” a pageBig Think or The Economist, for example, or the American Civil Liberties Union. This means you’ll get updates in your newsfeed whenever these sites share a post or article. It’s (almost) like subscribing to a magazine or joining a social organization. Second, you can form your own groups and then communicate easily and seamlessly with a class or a bowling league or circles of cousins planning a family reunion. That makes communication with intimates easy and efficient (and much more effective than group emails and “reply to all”); these groups can facilitate better and more frequent face-to-face interactions in the real world. And yes, you can keep in some kind of touch with friends from many disparate moments and places in your life: the high school friend in Seattle and the grad school friend in Hattiesburg, the fellow traveler you met once in Switzerland and the former student teaching English in Costa Rica. You might not have the neural bandwith to do justice to all these online relationships, and you would be doing some violence to relationships with your family and face-to-face connections if you were to try, but when you want or need to make a connection, the conduit is right there waiting for you.

In the end, I'm not convinced that my in-person relationships are doomed by my 1100+ Facebook friends. Nor am I worried that my brain is overly taxed by having ten times the number of virtual contacts that the Dunbar Number specifies. Facebook isn't really a community, so it doesn't compete in a zero-sum game with church or school, family or grass-roots organization. Facebook is, more than anything, a series of resources to help organize and promote real-world social circles. So I'd say pile on the virtual friends, if you like. Just don't try to keep tabs on all of them all at once.

 Image credit: Shutterstock

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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