How do you define the word friend?
It's someone who knows whether you are alive or dead. In business, it's more than just an acquaintance down the hall in accounting. You do life together, not just an occasional lunch. You share details and expect that person to care about them.
As many of us have suspected for years, Facebook is not really a place to find new friends, develop deep relationships, or even expect anyone to notice when you have a problem. (It doesn't help that we tend to only share the brightest, happiest moments of life.) These so-called friends don't live up to the textbook definition.
A new study released late last week reveals all of the gory details. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar is rather famous for suggesting that most of us can only handle about 150 real friends in the physical world. Now, he has found that we have even fewer online friends. On average, we each have only 4.1 friends we can count on during what Dunbar calls an emotional crisis. And, only 13.6 friends on average will even bother to express sympathy on Facebook during a personal crisis.
Interestingly, he found that it doesn't seem to matter if you have a high number of Facebook friends (a.k.a., you are a Millennial). Once you reach 150 online friends, it doesn't really matter anymore. Your posts become a glimmer in an ocean. Only about four people will notice there's been a death in the family or you were fired from a job.
My theory is that many of our interactions online amount to social media noise, a few bits of information passing in front of the screen. Sad to say, but it's almost like everyone is that ".1" online friend of the 4.1 average Dunbar cites. And, there's a technical reason why the study found these results. On Facebook, it's incredibly easy to "unfollow" someone, especially in business. First, the person you unfollow doesn't have any idea you don't see any of their posts. Second, you stay friends only in a technical sense, even if you have no idea they were recently sued by a colleague or arrested and thrown into jail last night after the company shindig.
So, what does it mean then? Should we all stop using Facebook? Not really. It's a good time to re-evaluate why you use the social network, though. If you are constantly posting deep personal feelings and expecting that business partner across town to notice, it's OK. He won't. If you keep complaining about your cold, don't expect your fellow employees in that remote office to care. Social media is an amazingly rich forum for exchanging ideas, posting links to interesting content, communicating about upcoming plans, and even attempting to resolve a conflict.
Is it a place for emotional connection? Not at all, and few of us probably see it that way in the first place. My advice is to see social media for what it is and don't bother using it in other ways. If people need to know about a serious problem, make a phone call or even express yourself by email. Don't add to the noise.
I'm curious if you agree with me. Do you connect with more than four people on a deeper level? Have you found real friends online and have met in person? I see Facebook as a forum for discussion and communication. If I want to get personal at all, I always go to an online chat or make a phone call. How about you?
Let me know. Just, don't make it personal.