Mar 24, 2014

I’ve developed a really weird relationship with Facebook over the past few years.

I joined back in 2007 when I was a teenager in school. Back then I was deeply interested in poetry. I remember spending all the money I earned from part-time work on second-hand books from eBay - sometimes dozens at a time, delivered to my parents’ house in big cardboard boxes. I had recently joined the Sparknotes community and became prolific on their message boards. It provided a cool opportunity to discuss current affairs and post poems that would be critiqued by other dilettantes like me. I met a bunch of very smart individuals, some of which I kept contact with after they invited me to Facebook.

After that point, it played a central part in my life. New acquaintances were never lost, but collected like flies in my own web of social media. The harmless luxury of forgetting people, the privilege afforded to civilisation for tens of thousands of years, was no longer really possible. On the contrary, in fact, my life was now in some entwined with everybody else’s. Events in their life - whether big or small - were available to me.

Facebook and my university years also have a very interesting relationship. Meeting hundreds of new people and having those memories, often blurred by alcohol and other party stimulents, snapshotted in Facebook albums forever - like exhibits in Formaldehyde - was a new experience.

But after a while, this collection of people - constantly buzzing and passing social judgements - became to feel claustrophobic. Every time I would go to share something, no matter how small or innocuous, I felt unseen eyes judge its content. I began only posting content and experiences I felt absolutely certain would pass scrutiny. I closed up and only shared protected content - there was no vulnerability which I thought social media would allow.

I’ve had Facebook for almost eight years now and have accrued around 600 contacts on there. Notice my use of ‘contacts’; I don’t treat all of them as friends, even as acquaintances. As of this morning, I’ve deleted almost 50% of them. But perhaps that’s not enough.

Dunbar’s number asserts that human beings only have the cognitive ability to maintain around 150 social relationships.

Beyond the 150 are at least two further layers (one at 500 and one at 1,500), which correspond to acquaintances (people we have a nodding acquaintance with) and faces we recognize.

All that seems to be happening when people add more than 150 friends on Facebook is that they simply dip into these normal higher layers. If you like, Facebook has muddied the waters by calling them all friends, but really they are not.

This isn’t to say that social-networking services don’t serve a useful function in facilitating our interactions with our “friends,” but what they don’t seem to do is allow us to increase the number of true friends.

The key here is that Dunbar was referring to “active” social relationships, not passive ones where I flick through someone’s wedding photos or like a status. Facebook, instead of bringing us together, has actually made it extremely easy for relationships to fade away into meaningless obscurity. The quality of relationships has been compromised: social gestures have been transformed into lazy web features; and the ease of adding new contacts makes maintaining quality a really labour-intensive activity.

Or perhaps Facebook is not important to my life anymore. It served some kind of use in the past, but now it doesn’t really effect positivity. Maybe that’s my problem, perhaps my own misuse is to blame. From now on, I’ve decided, it’ll only hold those who I feel comfortable sharing those vulnerable moments I should have always felt comfortable sharing.