Can you ever have too many friends? According to Jimmy Kimmel, the host of ABC’s late night comedy show—yes. The primary vehicle and enabler for this over-friending phenomenon according to Kimmel is Facebook, where an individual’s social network is based on their circle of friends. In an unprecedented effort to restore the “sacred nature of friendship,” Kimmel has declared November 17, 2010, “National UnFriend Day” (NUD). The day is described as an, “international day when all Facebook users… [cut] out any ‘friend fat’ on their pages occupied by people who are not truly their friends.”
“Friend fat?” Really Jimmy? Is there any merit to what Kimmel is trying to do, even if it is delivered through a dose of comedy and satire? Have we gone overboard when it comes to the number of friends we keep on Facebook? Kimmel implores viewers, “Remember five years ago when no one had Facebook and you didn’t know what the guy you took high school biology with was having for lunch? Remember how that was fine? Let’s go back.”
Social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, TenCent and MySpace have indeed forever changed the way we look at, create and maintain relationships. The reality is that these social networks have become an integral part of our culture, so much so that on November 17th I don’t think people will “go back” the way Kimmel hopes, but it is certainly a subject worth of discussion (remember the Burger King defriend promotion).
With Facebook logging more than 500 million active users worldwide, there is reason to believe that people want to continue growing large social networks with hundreds of “friends.” After all, it is human nature to seek interactions with others and to form bonds that define us as a community. It is this community—that lives online—that helps us create our own identity and identify others.
Quality vs. Quantity
Kimmel challenges, "I see people with thousands of what they call [Facebook] 'friends' - which is impossible. You can't have 1,000 friends.” Well actually—yes you can, and it may be easier than you think. Facebook users have on average somewhere around 130 friends, but it’s not too far a leap of the imagination for someone to have many more "friends."
The disconnect I see here is in how we define the word “friend.” Are acquaintances friends? What about colleagues from work who you do not socialize with except for in the office? Are you only friends on Facebook? Where do you draw the line? With the growing popularity of Facebook we’ve seen the word “friend” become a well known verb in popular culture (e.g., friend me when you get home)—a new meaning that only exists today because of Facebook.
Sorry #151, You’re Out of Luck
Despite the immediate laugh-factor in Kimmel’s NUD, perhaps it is worth a closer look. There is a theory commonly referred to as “Dunbar’s Number” that states people can only maintain a certain number of meaningful or “stable” social relationships with others. We've covered this before on Social Citizens and according to Wikipedia, “These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar's number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.”
Professor Robin Dunbar who developed this theory in the 1990’s—well before social networks took hold—explains that “the part of our brain that copes with language, thought and personal interaction will max out when our social circles stretch beyond 150.” The 150 figure has remained the same, regardless of whether the relationships we speak of are in-person, online, in the office or long-distance.
Are Some Relationships “Stronger” than Others?
The debate about strong versus weak online ties is a hot one right now.
Recently, Malcolm Gladwell published a thought-piece in the New York Times about social media’s impact on modern day activism. He expressed that,“The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, as you never could in real life.”
When it comes to activism according to Gladwell, social media is reinventing social activism, and diluting its impact. "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”
Taking an alternative view, Jacob Morgan of Social Media Today expressed how in today’s society, “weak” ties are actually beneficial. He references Morgan Hansen's book, Collaboration, which suggests that we“build weak ties, not strong ones.”
Hansen argues that, “… weak ties can prove much more helpful in networking, because they form bridges to worlds we do not walk within. Strong ties, on the other hand, tend to be worlds we already know; a good friend often knows many of the same people and things we know. They are not the best when it comes to searching for new jobs, ideas, experts, and knowledge. Weak ties are also good because they take less time. It's less time consuming to talk to someone once a month (weak tie) than twice a week (a strong tie). People can keep up quite a few weak ties without them being a burden.”
Friend or Foe?
What will you do on the 17th? Do you think we should heed Kimmel’s advice and cut out the friend fat? Are you planning to weed out the people who you don’t regularly speak with or embrace weak ties and continue to build a larger network?
I’m of the mindset that you can do both, which is what most of us do anyway—we naturally tend to interact with those people closest to us on a more regular and frequent basis. The way I see it, there’s no harm done in having more friends than not in a platform like Facebook, but I draw the line at friending people who I do not know.
What’s your policy?
Before you go on a friending/unfriending spree, let me leave you with this statement from Facebook representatives that was sent to CBSNews.com in response to NUD, "Jimmy Kimmel's Facebook campaign is clever so we're keeping him on our friend list for now. Come Nov. 17, just remember Jimmy, it's one thing to be the "unfriender," but it's a whole different story if you're the "unfriended." Words to live by in today's online world to be sure. I for one will be checking my Facebook friend list on November 18th!