Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Much is Too Much? Is Facebook Killing Friendship?

Whether or not you know with all of your facebook friends, the site has made it far easier to stay in touch with friends from different stages of life. But how many of these people can you actually stay friends with?

Imagine a stereotypical Jewish kids, who goes through youth group and camp in addition to K-12 and college, where they might have joined a sorority or fraternity and 5 student groups. Each phase, group, and activity has contributed to the immense social network the hold once they leave university. Where as this might have lead to a build up of an email address book or AIM buddy list, now, without trying, we can stay up to date on all of our friends. Quite literally, the hardest part of maintaining the 'relationship', namely the active attention it took to reach out and check in, has been removed as a barrier to knowing what is going on in a person's life. This shift from active to passive allows us to 'keep in touch' with a much larger number of people, and ensures that falling out of touch isn't something that happens accidentally.

It is often said that we cannot have more than 150 friends. The average number of confirmed friends on Facebook is 120. But if you grew up with Facebook in high school, used it in college, and are comfortable with the fact that Facebook 'friends' stretch even the meaning of acquaintance, you likely have several hundred. At minimum.

One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that attachment is a source of suffering. As our social networks continue to expand at alarming rates (effectively tracking every person we meet and when), it seems natural that we would begin to be weighed down by our attachments, as casual as they may be. Because we often add friends without categorizing them on Facebook, we are often combing through status updates of people we don't know well, might not care much about, of have little interest in. Sure, Facebook's algorithms will reduce that noise over time to those with whom we interact with most, but the sheer number of birthday reminders and messages we get continues to blur the line between 'real' friend and Facebook friend.

If we are simultaneously able to have more attachment, while the quality of that attachment is lowered (by the lower threshold needed to count as a friend), then we are indeed likely to become crushed under the weight of too many acquaintances.

So what to do? Some people are swearing off Facebook altogether, or opt for 'Personal Network' sites like Path, I think it is still possible to effectively use Facebook for both personal and larger social networking gains.

First, stop accepting people as regular friends. Default them into limited profile, or create a list with limited permissions. Second, start categorizing your current friends, maybe by how you know them, or how close you are. You can set what you share with which group so take advantage of it. Finally, instead of the regular news stream, click 'Most Recent' next to 'Top News' and filter by one of your new friend lists to only see the posts you want.

There is no denying the impact of our technology on the way we interact and the relationships we build, but we still have some choice left in how we use it.

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