When we think of friends, and call their faces out of the shadows, and their voices out of the echoes that faint along the corridors of memory, and do it without knowing why save that we love to do it, we content ourselves that that friendship is a Reality, and not a Fancy — that it is builded upon a rock, and not upon the sands that dissolve away with the ebbing tides and carry their monuments with them.
— Mark Twain, Letter to Mary Mason Fairbanks, 1867
Friendship is one mind in two bodies. —Mencius, third century BCE
Earth may be the friendliest place in the universe, if Facebook is any indication. Worldwide, every day, around 5 billion “likes” are generated from 1.13 billion users reaching out to their “friends.” Five new Facebook profiles are generated every second. The friendliest demographic appears to be the 25 to 34 age group, which comprises around 30 percent of users. Craving friendship, 50 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds go on Facebook when they wake up. Overall, people generally seem friendliest mid-week between 1 to 3 pm, when peak usage occurs. No other social media site comes close to Facebook’s popularity. It has more active users than Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp combined. Each Facebook user is allowed up to 5,000 friends.1The top 20 valuable Facebook statistics – updated July 2016. Zephoria.com. https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics/. Accessed 30 July, 2016. That’s a lot of friendship. Or is it?
BILL GORE’S REALIZATION
W. L. “Bill” Gore, the chemical engineer who invented Gore-Tex, the waterproof, breathable fabric used in wetsuits, hiking boots, ponchos and tents, as well as inventing vascular grafts and surgical meshes, was one of the first individuals to focus on the limits of friendship in industrial settings. In 1957 Gore left a promising career with DuPont. On January 1, 1958, he and Genevieve, his wife, started their company W. L. Gore & Associates, in the basement of their home in Newark, Delaware. The company was successful and expanded into a large factory. One day Gore walked onto the factory floor and realized that he no longer knew who everybody was. His gut instinct told him that the bigger a company got, the less friendly workers became and the less likely they were to work hard and help each other out. Gore calculated that after putting more than 150 people in the same building, things ceased to run smoothly. People couldn’t keep track of each other, and a sense of friendly community was lost. At the magic number of about 150, everybody knew who was the manager, the accountant, who cleaned the sinks, floors and toilets, and who made the sandwiches for lunch. So Gore made the decision to cap his factories at 150 employees. When the company needed expanding, he would just build another factory — sometimes right on the parking lot next door.2The Gore story. Gore.com. http://www.gore.com/about/the-gore-story. Accessed 30 July, 2016.
Gore’s vision translated into worker satisfaction. His basement operation grew to become one of the 200 largest privately held companies in the US. The company earned the number three spot on the World’s Best Multinational Workplaces list by the Great Place to Work Institute in 2015. Gore’s company was also named to the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, earning the number 12 spot in 2016. The Gore company has offices and manufacturing operations in 25 countries, and is cited as a best workplace in China, France, Germany, Italy, Korea, Spain, Sweden and the UK. (2)
A friend to all is a friend to none. — Aristotle
Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Oxford, was paying attention to Bill Gore’s decisions about work force size. Much of Dunbar’s research has focused on why the Gore model was such a spectacular success. The key idea, Dunbar finds, is that humans can hold about 150 meaningful relationships in their heads. Dunbar has researched this idea so thoroughly that the number 150 has come to be known as “Dunbar’s Number.”
Ironically, “Dunbar’s Number” was first coined on Facebook, where a mere 150 friends are often considered a drop in the bucket. Dunbar reports, “There was a discussion [on Facebook] by people saying, ‘I’ve got too many friends — I don’t know who half these people are.’ Somebody apparently said, ‘Look, there’s this guy in England who says you can’t have more than 150.’” Soon Dunbar’s Number was off and running.
Dunbar kept bumping into the number 150 in his anthropological research. This number appeared to be a sweet spot for hunter-gatherer societies and Neolithic farming villages all over the world. He found that, from the Bushmen of Southern Africa to Native American tribes, a typical community is about 150.3Don’t believe Facebook; you only have 150 friends. Npr.com. http://www.npr.org/2011/06/04/136723316/dont-believe-facebook-you-only-have-150-friends. 5 June, 2011. Accessed 13 August, 2016. The number persists in modern societies. Dunbar found that the self-governing communes of the Hutterites, an Anabaptist sect similar to the Amish and the Mennonites, always split when they grow larger than 150. 4Bennett D. The Dunbar number, from the guru of social networks. Bloomberg.com. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-01-10/the-dunbar-number-from-the-guru-of-social-networks. 11 January, 2013. Accessed 8 August, 2016
Dunbar realized that military organizations worldwide reflect the same pattern, from Roman antiquity to modern times. A company, a basic military unit, typically consists of 80–250 soldiers commanded by a major or a captain. Although armies are also organized as large battalions, regiments, and divisions, their subdivision into companies helps maintain a greater sense of unit cohesion and community.
Dunbar argues that 150 would be the mean group size for communities with a very high incentive to remain together, such as groups that are under intense survival pressure due to severe environmental and economic factors. But why should this be so? The main underlying reason for 150, says Dunbar, is neurological. The number of social group members a single primate can keep track of appears to be limited by the volume of the neocortex. He contends that, for every species, the ideal social group size can be computed from the mean neocortical volume of that particular species. In humans, Dunbar states, the size of the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language limits us to managing about 150 friends.5Dunbar RIM. Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution. 1992; 22 (6): 469–493. Through countless generations, our primate ancestors found that 150 was the optimal community size. In groups this size, people could work together to solve problems and evade predators. Even today, Dunbar states, “150 seems to be number at which our brains just max out on memory.”(3)
Dunbar is no rogue scientist. He has been showered with honors. He is a Fellow of the British Academy (1998) and a recipient of Huxley Memorial Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (2014). The simple arithmetic of his argument — that bigger brains correlate with bigger social groups — gives it academic heft. As a consequence, he is now seen as the father of what’s known as the social brain hypothesis.(5) “It’s been very influential,” says Simon Reader, an evolutionary biologist at McGill University. “It has been the dominant hypothesis.”6Reader S. Quoted in: Bennett D. The Dunbar number, from the guru of social networks. Bloomberg.com. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-01-10/the-dunbar-number-from-the-guru-of-social-networks. 11 January, 2013. Accessed 8 August, 2016.
THE CHRISTMAS-CARD STUDY
Much of Dunbar’s work has been done with groups of primates, where it is comparatively easy to estimate the size of stable social networks. Primates spend a lot of time grooming each other in social groups, picking fleas and parasites out of each other’s fur. Although humans today don’t have much fur and usually not many fleas, there may well be flea-picking equivalents that might serve as proxies to grooming in primates.
Dunbar, working with R. A. Hill, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Durham, chose Christmas-card lists as one such equivalent. Sending Christmas cards sheds light on how many friends an individual actually cares about. As one commentator says, “[Sending a holiday card] is an investment. You either have to know the address or get it; you have to buy the card or have it made from exactly the right collage of adorable family photos; you have to write something, buy a stamp, and put the envelope in the mail. These are not huge costs, but most people don’t incur them for just anybody.”(4)
Hill and Dunbar published their paper “Social Network Size in Humans” in the journal Human Nature in 2003. They state, “[Sending Christmas cards is the] one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all of those individuals within their social network whose relationship they value.” Their findings: A quarter of the cards went to relatives, nearly two-thirds to friends, and 8 percent to colleagues. “Maximum network size averaged 153.5 individuals, with a mean network size of 124.9 for those individuals explicitly contacted; these values are remarkably close to the group size of 150 predicted for humans on the basis of the size of their neocortex…. These findings suggest that there may be cognitive constraints on network size.”7Hill RA, Dunbar RIM. Social network size in humans. Human Nature. 2003; 14(1): 53-72.
Dunbar acknowledges that it is misleading to talk about a single, absolute Dunbar number. He actually describes a scale of numbers applying to ever-widening circles of connection. The innermost is a group of three to five, our very closest friends. Then there is a circle of 12 to 15, those whose death would be devastating to us. Then comes 50, “the typical overnight camp size among traditional hunter-gatherers like the Australian Aboriginals or the San Bushmen of Southern Africa,” Dunbar writes in his book How Many Friends Does One Person Need? 8Dunbar R. How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2010. Beyond 150 there are widening circles. Fifteen hundred is the average tribe size in hunter-gatherer societies, the number of people who speak the same language or dialect. These numbers, which Dunbar teased out of surveys and ethnographies, grow by a factor of roughly three. He isn’t sure why this is so.(4)
ARE FRIENDSHIPS EXPANDABLE?
There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met. —William Butler Yeats
Like a pioneer in any area of science, Dunbar has his critics. Among them are the architects of social network sites, most of whom are less than joyful about the concept of numerical limits to friendships. Still, many of these cheerleaders of unlimited friendships are interested in the pros and cons of his work.
Dunbar has responded to criticism by continuing to add data fortifying his premise. For instance, a 2011 study found that on Twitter the average number of people a user regularly interacts with falls between 100 and 200. And though the limit on how many Facebook friends one can have is a generous 5,000, statistics show that the average user has 190 — more than 150, but within what Dunbar sees as the margin of error.(4)
The burning question among social network enthusiasts is whether social media sites such as Facebook stretch the size of manageable friendships. In search of an answer, Dunbar compared the online traffic of people with thousands of Facebook friends with those with only hundreds. He showed that there is no discernible difference in the traffic of the two groups. As Dunbar says, “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. 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.” Dunbar found significant gender differences. His analysis suggests that women are better than men at maintaining friendships on Facebook. He states, “Girls are much better at maintaining relationships just by talking to each other. Boys need to do physical stuff together.”9Loveys K. 5,000 friends on Facebook? Scientists prove 150 is the most we can cope with. Dailymail.com. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1245684/5-000-friends-Facebook-Scientists-prove-150-cope-with.html. 24 January, 2010. Accessed 31 July, 2016.
Dunbar does not deny that humans might be able to reset or expand the cognitive limits on our social interactions. After all, we’ve done it before, as when we taught ourselves to talk in our distant past. This made it possible, he argues, for humans to function in much larger groups than our primate cousins. “Whereas baboons bond by taking turns picking each others’ nits, we have rhetoric and gossip and half-time speeches, not to mention singing and storytelling and jokes, to bring and hold us together.” Language, he says, is how humans used their brains to get to 150. And until something as revolutionary as that comes along, 150 is where he thinks we’ll stay.(4)
Most people are fascinated by the fact that Dunbar himself has zero Facebook friends. As one Dunbar watcher says, “He occasionally peers over his wife’s shoulder when she logs on at home, but he isn’t on the social network.” He has a LinkedIn account, he says, “by mistake.”(4)
If you have one true friend you have more than your share. —Thomas Fuller
David Smallwood, an addictions expert and author in the UK, believes that many Facebook users become hooked on the urge to acquire more friends in an attempt to appear popular and successful.10Smallwood D. Who Says I’m An Addict: A Book For Anyone Who Is Partial To Food, Sex, Booze Or Drugs. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House; 2014. He and other psychologists warn that Facebook is driving a worrying trend of “friendship addiction” that causes insecurity in those who use it. Smallwood suggests that at least 10 percent of the population is vulnerable to friendship addiction. According to him, you know you’re suffering from friendship addiction when “(1) you judge yourself by how many online friends you have; (2) you believe people with more friends than you are more popular; (3) you regularly comb through your friends’ friends’ lists for people to add to your own; (4) the first thing you do when you get home from a party is add all the people you just met as friends; or (5) you have at least 20 people on your friends’ list you actively dislike.”11 Cooke T. Help! I’m a Facebookaholic: Inside the Crazy World of Social Networking. London, UK: John Blake Publishing Ltd.; 2011: 101. 12Goodchild S. The women addicted to Facebook friendships. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/the-women-addicted-to-facebook-friendships- 6827630.html. 22 October 2008. Accessed 14 August, 2016.
One man’s god is another man’s devil. — Folk saying
A growth industry has developed that is dedicated to criticizing social media. Many critics view social media not only as a threat to traditional forms of friendship, but also as a menace to one’s psychological and spiritual health. There are numerous Internet warnings along the lines that social networking “kills the creative spirit.”13Ellison JT. How social networking kills the creative spirit. Jtellison.com. http://jtellison.com/how-social-networking-kills-th/. Accessed 28 August, 2016 This warning is mild when compared to websites such as “Facebook and How Satan Is Using It to EAT YOUR SOUL,”14Van A. Facebook and How Satan is Using It To EAT YOUR SOUL. http://newmediarockstars.com/2012/03/facebook-and-how-satan-is-using-it-to-eat-your-soul/. 28 March, 2012. Accessed 28 August, 2016. “Satanic Covens Use Facebook to Curse Your Family,”15 Tashman B. Pat Robertson: Satanic Covens Use Facebook to Curse Your Family. http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/pat-robertson-satanic-covens-use-facebook-curse-your-family. 17 February, 2015.Accessed 28 August, 2016. and “Shamans Using Sites like Facebook for Black Magic.”16Bhagat R. Cnet.com. http://www.cnet.com/news/shamans-using-sites-like-facebook-for-black-magic-says-malaysian-official/. 9 March, 2016. Accessed 29 August, 2016.
If Facebook has spawned a lot of friendship, it has also generated a considerable amount of hate, especially toward Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Out of curiosity, I Googled the term “Mark Zuckerberg is evil.” The result was more than half a million hits. Many of these websites are redolent with bigotry and anti-Semitism, and are too vile to mention here by name. Condemning Zuckerberg as evil is ironic, considering that he and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, have promised to donate 99 percent of their fortune to various social causes about which they care. Even this extraordinary gesture has evoked criticism, with one scold complaining about “the potential adverse economic consequences of too much philanthropy.”17Hendrickson M. Let’s hope not all billionaires emulate Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy. Forbes.com. http://www.forbes.com/sites/markhendrickson/2015/12/08/lets-hope-not-all-billionaires- emulate-mark-zuckerbergs-philanthropy/#3738f8843705. 8 December, 2015. Accessed 29 August, 2016.
Thoughtful criticism of social media is healthy, of course, and should be encouraged. An admirable example is Dunbar himself, who laments the fact that touch, which has been important in building close relationships among primates, is completely lacking in social media networking.
THE TECHNOLOGICAL FALLACY
We live in an era when rapid change breeds fear, and fear too often congeals us into a rigidity which we mistake for stability.
—Lynn Townsend White
Can Facebook destroy the social fabric? In his fascinating book Paper, an exploration of the history of the development of paper, author Mark Kurlansky examines what he calls the technological fallacy, the idea that technology changes society.18Kurlansky M. Paper: Paging Through History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 2016. “It is exactly the reverse,” he says. “Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it.” His observations about paper may be relevant to our concerns about the impact of the Internet on friendship. He elaborates:
Technological inventions have always arisen from necessity. Numerous inventions preceded paper. First came spoken language, then drawing, then pictographs, then alphabets, then phoneticism, then writing, and then paper. Paper was then followed by printing, moveable type, typewriters, machine-driven printers, and electronic word processors and the electronic printers that go with them. As needs present themselves, solutions are found. Every idea engenders a need for another.19Kurlansky M. Paper: Paging Through History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 2016: xiv
New innovations do not always eradicate earlier technologies, says Kurlansky, but they may reveal them in a new light and often invigorate them.
The invention of gas and electric heaters has not meant the end of fireplaces. Printing did not end penmanship, television did not kill radio, movies did not kill theatre, and home videos did not kill movie theaters, although all these things were falsely predicted. Electronic calculators have not even ended the use of the abacus, and more than a century after
Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for a commercially successful lightbulb in 1879, there are still four hundred candle manufacturers in the United States alone, employing some 7,000 workers with annual sale of more than $2 billion. In fact, the first decade of the twenty-first century showed a growth in candle sales, though the uses of candles have of course greatly changed…. New technology, rather than eliminating older technology, increases choices. Computers will no doubt change the role of paper, but it is extremely unlikely that paper will be eliminated…20Kurlansky M. Paper: Paging Through History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 2016: xiv.
Kurlansky describes how, after Gutenberg invented moveable type in the fifteenth century and books began to be printed rather than handwritten by scribes, this transition was regarded in some quarters with great suspicion. “Was there a dangerous political agenda? Were [the printers] in league with the devil? When … Gutenberg’s ex-partner went to Paris with cases of books to sell, he had to flee, accused of being sent by the devil.” Critics of the new typeset books said they were unnatural and inhuman. They said that “a certain human touch was missing in the way the letters and the words all had exactly the same spacing… It was rigid and uncreative.”21Kurlansky M. Paper: Paging Through History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 2016: 116-117.
Within only a few decades, however, sentiments had changed. Kurlansky:
By the end of the fifteenth century, Europe, with its paper and printing presses, had for the first time in history become the most advanced civilization in the world. In science, music, art, mathematics, architecture, literature, geography, philosophy — in fact, in most any field imaginable…22Kurlansky M. Paper: Paging Through History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 2016: 117.
It is a constant in social evolution that new ideas, no matter how worthy, commonly face a storm of criticism when introduced. A fierce debate of this sort concerned another innovation in fifteenth-century Europe — the artistic technique of perspective, the rendering a three-dimensional representation on a two-dimensional surface. Although the perspectival technique makes possible a truer image of what the eye sees, many rebelled at this possibility for greater accuracy. They considered this new development as too real and they shrank from it. The rebellion against realism in art had been present for centuries. As Alan MacFarland and Gerry Martin observe in their intriguing book Glass: A World History:
It is well known that Plato felt that realist…art should be banned as a deceit, and most civilizations have followed Plato for other reasons. For the Chinese (and Japanese) the purpose of art was not to imitate or portray external nature, but to suggest emotions. Thus they actively discouraged too much realism, which merely repeated without any added value what could anyway be seen. A Van Eyck or a Leonardo would have been scorned as a vulgar imitator.23Macfarlane A, Martin G. Glass: A World History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2002: 59.
This was not just a Western objection. In parts of the Islamic tradition
…realistic artistic representations of living things above the level of flowers and trees are banned as blasphemous imitations of the creator’s distinctive work. Humans should not create graven images, or any images at all, for thereby they took to themselves the power of God. Again, Van Eyck or Leonardo would have been an abhorrence. Even mirrors can be an abomination, for they create duplicates of living things. (22)
So although the perspectival approach gave the world a more realistic form of representation, much of the world turned away, often with a vengeance. Perspectivism was impugned, maligned, slandered, and defamed, and those espousing it were denigrated as heretics, blasphemers, and usurpers of divine authority. Fidelity in art was seen as a threat, a replacement of the sacred by the profane.
Much of the current rancor over digital devices and social media strongly resembles the denunciation of printing and perspectivism. Things haven’t changed all that much. Wholesale endorsement of these developments is unwise, but so too is sweeping condemnation. I’m not suggesting that we let digital devices and social media off the hook, but that their influence is hugely complex and demands unbiased appraisal. And we should always bear in mind that, as Kurlansky states, “The history of technology shows that Luddites always lose.”24Kurlansky M. Paper: Paging Through History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton; 2016: xiv.
friend: noun. Origin: Old English frēond, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch vriend and German Freund, from an Indo-European root meaning “to love.” 25Friend. Dictionary app, Macintosh OS X. 3 September, 2016.
The shallowness, superficiality, and lack of satisfaction in thousands of digital friendships should remind us that we are forfeiting something vital in the drive to accumulate 5,000 Facebook friends. As a result, perhaps we will regain an appreciation of old-fashioned friendships. Traditional friendships, like the lingering charm of candles, may be seen as a treasure hidden in plain sight, unseen because so common. In this process, we might stop objecting to the evidence that we have the capacity for “only” 150 close friends, and begin to celebrate 150 as a mighty achievement and a treasured indicator of what it means to be human.
It is easy to criticize the digital friendship craze and its sad variations. Everyone by now is familiar with the restaurant scenario of a man and woman ignoring each other, each riveted by their individual smartphone, their faces illuminated by the device’s eerie light, each silently cocooned in their downward stare. But these cartoonish expressions conceal something that should be respected — the deep need in modern life for connections with others, an unfulfilled hunger for a unity that has gone missing in people’s lives. This desire should be honored, not ridiculed. And if the current compulsion to amass digital connections is crude and stumbling, well, it is still early days and no one knows for sure how the digital friendship game will play out.
The primordial need for friendship and connectedness with our fellow humans is a wonderful urge, even if it has become deranged by the digital confusion of quality with quantity. Just as our ancestors’ fate depended on friendship and mutual cooperation in a hostile, predatory world, our fate as a species likely depends on how deeply we engage and honor one another and the planetary biota in general.26Dossey L. One Mind: How Our Individual Mind Is Part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House; 2013.
So let the friendship circus continue. We will sort things out. Meanwhile, I’m betting on more than 150.
References [ + ]
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