Friendship in the Digital Age

By Dr. Greg Davis, Senior Pastor

There’s so much made of social media these days, how it is retarding social skills amongst young people, limiting interaction, and causing people to have love affairs with their smart phones (which has caused a rise in injuries caused by people walking into stationary objects, other people – and the paths of cars!). Lots of people have “friended” thousands on their social media accounts.  

Here’s a question: how many friends can a person really have? Like so much else, it’s been researched. An article by Robin Henig explains there is a limit to how far a true social network can extend. Back in the 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford University calculated the maximum number of friends it’s possible for any one person to have. The ceiling, which has come to be known as Dunbar’s Number, is based on his observation that in primates, the size of the social group is directly proportional to the size of the neocortex of the brain. In humans, Dunbar’s Number is 150—well, 147.8, plus or minus.

“Partly it’s a cognitive challenge just to keep track of more people than that,” Dunbar has explained. “And it’s a time-budgeting problem: we just don’t have the time in everyday life to invest in each of those people to the extent where you can have a real relationship.”

Dunbar’s Number was calculated pre-Internet, but it applies to social media networks, too. Henig writes about a study conducted in 2009 for The Economist that found people with 500 Facebook friends had actual interaction—such as leaving comments on people’s walls or “liking” their links or photos—with an average of just 17 friends for men, 26 for women.

Facebook itself has figured this out and has developed an algorithm that restricts the updates you’ll see on your friend feed to those whose updates and links you most commonly interact with. Other social media startups, including Path, Highlight, GroupMe, Frenzy, Rally Up, Huddl, Kik, and Shizzlr, also offer ways to limit groups to a more manageable size.  

This is a reflection of how friendships work in real life: an inner circle for true intimacy, an outer circle for all the benefits of a community at large. The new apps suggest that maybe we’ve come full circle, using technology to make real-world friend encounters more satisfying instead of less so. Because the fact remains that most human interactions are still occurring in the real world, and friendship circles are still restricted by time, space, personal preferences, and the limits of your neocortex.

The real thing we should fear is missing out on those few, true, long-term friendships that make for a richer, happier life. One of the most crucial friendships we can enjoy is with God. On your friend list, make sure God is number one.