A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What's Not to Like?

I’ve been on Facebook for a decade.  I’ve hated it for the entire time.
But the conundrum is, I’ve also loved it.  Without Facebook, I might never have known about friends’ fascinating accomplishments (Plays! Novels! Ironman triathlons!) and moves to other continents (all seven of them, although the Antarctica folks do also spend time in less penguin-y places).  I might have missed hundreds of thought-provoking conversations and hundreds more genuine laugh-out-loud snort-fests. I might never have reconnected with a couple of individuals so remarkable that they willingly tolerate my Scrabble habits.   I might have drifted irrevocably away from dozens of long-ago friends– and as a result, I might never have enjoyed some real-world paths-crossing fun at a coffee shop, a museum, a whale watch, a beach, or the ruins of Barnard Castle on a sunny summer day in Yorkshire, England.
I’ve long since reconciled myself to the fact that I’m probably not going to quit Facebook.  I thought I’d also decided not bother to try to parse all the things about it that bug the hell out of me.  But recently I realized that there might be some math involved.  Math!  That, of course, made the question irresistible.
Everyone seems to agree that a Facebook “friend” is not the same as a real friend.  But what does that distinction really mean, and why does it matter?  How many friends do we want or need?  What do we really want from our friends?  When does Facebook supply that, where does it fall short, and when does it actually undermine us?
Intrigued by these questions, I delved into the research literature. (Of course I did).   I read about two different set of numbers: one quantifying the number and closeness of friendships, and one quantifying the amount of time that friendships require to develop.  I found this fascinating.  Bear with me.
Dunbar’s number was proposed in the 1990s (by someone named Robin Dunbar, naturally) as the upper limit to the number of people a human can really know, and thus the upper limit on “real” friendships.  The number was derived based solely on the size of the human neocortex, as compared to that of other social monkeys and apes.  But the idea caught hold when it became apparent that many social groupings – Roman legions!  Hunter-gatherer bands! -- do fall remarkably close to this number. 
Dunbar later expanded his theory to suggest a series of layers or concentric circles.  Those 150 friends are part of a larger circle of 500 acquaintances, and beyond that an even larger circle of vague acquaintances.  Moving inward, 50 of the 150 are your core of good friends.  Of those, fifteen or so are really close friends, or “best friends”.  At the very center, five of the fifteen are the most important people in your life – often the family members you live with. 
These numbers aren’t exact, of course.  Some people flat-out don’t want this many connections. Friends drift in and out of the loose outer layers.  Researchers have quibbled over the sizes of the circles.  But a remarkable body of research upholds the general idea of their existence – as well as their importance, in terms of health and happiness, and the relative amount of time that people prefer to spend nurturing the bonds within each layer. According to Dunbar, most people assign about 40 percent of their available social-interaction time to their inner circle of five, 20 percent to the next ten people, and the remaining 40 percent to everyone else. 
How much time per person does this actually translate to? 
I did a few quick calculations.  (Of course I did.) The answer depends on what fraction of your waking hours you spend in the company of other humans in at least a semi-voluntary sort of way. (Work doesn’t count, but washing the dishes together does.)  If we assume a very rough estimate of about one third, and apply Dunbar’s percentages (assuming all layers are “full”), the per-person totals come out to three hours per person per week in the innermost layer, just under an hour per person for the next ten people, and six minutes per person for everyone else, assuming you don’t “waste” time on any mere acquaintances.
Of course, these numbers look a lot higher when you spend time with more than one person at once.  If those inner five are your family, you have 15 hours per week to spend with them en masse.  If you can fit ten friends in your living room, you and your gang could spend almost eight hours every week watching a trilogy or having a D&D marathon.  Still, there’s not a lot of time left for the 150 – or for making new friends.
This gets us to more recent research by someone named Jeff Hall.  Dr. Hall wanted to know just how much time people need to spend hanging out together in order to start thinking of each other as friends, close friends, or best friends.  He came up with numbers (numbers!) averaging out to 50 hours, 90 hours, and 200 hours, respectively.  Interestingly, Hall confirmed that the joint activity barely mattered, but that the time only “counted” if it was intentional.
Hall didn’t investigate romantic relationships or familial ones, and he didn’t directly equate his definitions of friendship levels to Dunbar’s layers. Nor did he quantify over how long a period this friend-making investment can occur -- but the friendship-formations he examined all took place within the space of six months or less, suggesting that the basic level “friends” were averaging at least two hours per week together, and the “best friends” more than eight hours per week – a high bar indeed. 
And that is where we get back to Facebook. Facebook is time-efficient – much more so than reading my wordy blog posts -- and that efficiency is immensely appealing, in the face of the daunting standards set by Hall’s numbers.  But for all its convenience and appeal, Facebook is really bad at Dunbar layers.
Oh, it tries.  That algorithm that controls how much you see from people?  Yeah, that makes sense.  If you “like” every single one of your mom’s posts, even if she’s just posting photos of the house plants, then you’ll continue to see them all – because she’s your MOM.  If you ignore that one friend who feels he has to announce every cup of coffee, then those posts will diminish from your feed.  Cool. 
But the algorithm isn’t imperfect.  It gets it wrong.  I think this is in part because there are too many variables at play: closeness, frequency of posting, frequency of response, total number of posts you want to see, and type of posts you want to see.  Some people use Facebook as a place to repost and link tons of impersonal stuff – politics, science, humor, sports.  I think of it more as a place to offer up my own happenings, or my obviously-oh-so-cogent-and-witty personal take on current events.  Some people care about my dogs/kids/hiking trips more than others do, and the friendship-math gets funky.
I have Facebook “friends” who definitely aren’t in my circle of 150.  I also have a “friend” who is the man I’m married to -- and friends in every layer in between.  Some of these people don’t post at all.  Some post a couple of times a year, some once a month, some eight times a day.  And about half the real-world people I care about, at every level, are not members of Facebook at all.  All this is utterly unrelated to how interested I am in the person, of course. 
Outer-circle intrusion from people who are, presumably, gearing their participation toward their nearest and dearest can be solved by unfollowing, if necessary.   Inner-circle exclusion can be dealt with by closing Facebook for one hot moment and texting, emailing, or standing on a mountaintop and waving semaphore flags.  Then there’s the problem of mid-circle exclusion: when a bunch of your friends post a group photo of the gang of them having a Really Great Time at the party you weren’t invited to.  I guess I can deal with this by reminding myself to be a big girl.  What took me longer to pinpoint as a source of emotional Facebook discomfort is a slightly more subtle problem: inner-circle alienation.  More about that in a moment.
Facebook, to me, is an absolutely fabulous way to maintain ties with your 150.  You care about these people.  You want to know what’s up with them.  You want to cheer for their victories, buy a copy of the book they wrote, cogitate about their political opinions, and laugh when their kid does something genuinely hilarious.  If disaster strikes one of them, you want to help out – even though you can’t really help them on the regular.  Recently, when I snapped one of my Achilles tendons and ended up on crutches for seven weeks, many friends with whom I usually only exchange a smile or a hello came through for me with acts of kindness, heartfelt words of support, and nifty second-hand orthopedic devices.  In short, these people are pretty awesome.  They’re important. They are real friends, but they are nonetheless friends of convenience, and that’s okay. 
Even the fifty, the “good friends”, are, ultimately, friends of convenience, too – and sometimes that hurts.  You WANT to make plans.  You even say so: “We should hang out!”  Then you don’t.  Because you’re a grownup, and you’re busy, and you need to call the plumber and the babysitter and the vet and who the hell knows what.  It’s just life – and math. 
But no matter how important the outer circles are, it’s the inner circles – the fifteen and the five – who really, really matter.  You don’t need that many of them, of course, but you do need SOME. These are the people who love you, in the active-verb heels-dug-in sense of the word.  These are the people who are, at least ideally, a permanent and relatively consistent part of your life.  They’re woven into your fabric.  They’re part of your identity.  They know you for who you really are, and (miraculously!) still like you. 
Mind-blowingly, it turns out that these people are also literally keeping you alive.  An extremely long-term studies of human lives (the Harvard Study of Adult Development) reached the startling conclusion that the single-most important determinant of whether someone is alive, healthy, and happy at age 80 has nothing to do with weight, exercise, or even cigarette smoking.  It is whether they say “yes” or “no” to the question of whether there is someone to whom they could pour out their woes at three o’clock in the morning.
Getting back to my point about inner-circle alienation, Facebook is useless with these close-to-the-heart folks – and sometimes downright painful.  It’s obvious why, if you think of hypothetical extremes: your parents are divorcing and your best friend is marrying your twin brother, and you find out… on Facebook.  Um, nope.
I realized that I gear my own Facebook posts toward the 50 and the 150, in terms of both content and frequency.  I tend to post once or twice a week, and I tend to focus on what feels particularly important, entertaining, and personal – but not TOO personal. 
I’m not trying to claim that I do Facebook “right”.  In fact, several people have strongly suggested that I do it wrong, in various ways.  I don’t often use it as a platform for my expertise in climate change science, and am therefore missing an opportunity to educate the world.  I don’t post enough that is thought-provokingly controversial; I’m too bland.  I’m too positive, which sets others up to feel like failures if their lives don’t feel that upbeat.  I’m too boastful, with my posts about achievements and accolades. All of these critiques hit home.  Blandness, political apathy, and boastfulness are… not my goals.  So maybe I need to adjust my posting.  But even if I do so, I’m still going to aim my posts toward the “middle” layers of friendship. 
Ultimately, I’ll accept that Facebook is, like so much in life, what you make of it.  Face to face interactions are always going to be the best, but I have friends scattered around the world.  Real conversations are always going to be more personal that shouting to the masses, but we all have limited time.  The math is real, and the numbers add up.
So… Facebook it is.  But know, my friends, that in my heart I’d rather being exploring the ruins of a castle with you.