ESSAY- With friends like these: What's wrong with Facebook

They say you can never have too many friends, but obviously "they" aren't on Facebook.

Facebook, for those of you who have been too busy thinking how much better this column would be had it been written on an IBM Selectric to check it out for yourself, is a social networking web site everyone feels a need to be a part of but no one actually needs to be a part of.

In the evolution of time sucks, it sits right between IM and Twitter, to the left of Tetris, and across the hall from correcting comma usage in Wikipedia entries.

The idea of Facebook is to communicate by amassing as many "friends" as possible, much the way the past decade has been about amassing debt and houses you can't afford, and you see where that's gotten us. It doesn't matter whether they're your best friend or someone you've never heard of before– the more, the merrier. Hence, Facebook's unofficial motto: "He who dies with the most friends, wins."

Once you have these friends, they can go to your profile page and see what you say to other people, who else you befriend, what silly quizzes you've taken, and what photos you post. And you can see theirs. It's exhibitionism– I mean, social communication– at its best.

It lets us expose ourselves to the world and be Gladys Kravitz at the same time, without ever having to leave the comfort of our office chair. It's for reasons like this that we should all take a moment to thank the Defense Department for creating the Internet. Well, this and, the home of funny cat pix.

But really, how many friends do you need? Exactly one hundred and forty-eight if you can believe Robin Dunbar. He's the anthropologist who came up with what's known as the Dunbar Number, which is the maximum number of people with which we can maintain a stable social relationship. That's assuming, of course, that we'd recognize a stable social relationship if we stumbled upon one.

Dunbar came up with this number– often rounded up to 150– by comparing the brain size and social networks of apes, then adjusting the figures to compensate for the size of the human brain. (I'm not sure if he scaled it up or down. After all, while apes can't read, write, or come up with a reason why every little girl loves Barbie and the Diamond Castle, they are smart enough not to go on Facebook and tell the world they're "having insects picked off my butt again.")

But since Dunbar's Number is generally accepted by scientists, I might as well go along with it too. It turns out that, even if we have that many friends, we ignore most of them.

According to an article in the Economist (motto: "Don't blame us for this mess, it's just our name"), the in-house sociologist at Facebook says the average man responds to the postings of only seven of his friends, while women, who– as they like to remind men– are more sociable, respond to ten. This means about 88 percent of our friends are being left in the virtual dust. It also means that if you have more than 120 friends on Facebook– and what self-respecting person doesn't?– you not only aren't able to cognitively handle all of them, but even if you magically could, you wouldn't pay attention to most of them anyway. It makes you feel downright wanted, doesn't it?

This is all the ammunition I need to not add another person as a friend who claims to have passed me once in the hall in junior high school, sends a friend request because so-and-so "said you're a cool person and I should be your friend," or is my mother.

Hopefully, in Facebook's next extreme makeover, which no one will like and will cause membership in the group "Facebook Needs To Stop Moving My Cheese" to skyrocket, maybe they'll put a "Sorry, over the Dunbar Number limit" button next to the other options: "Confirm," "Ignore," and "Leave it on my Request Page forever because I don't want them to see anything about me but I also don't want to offend them by rejecting them."

While people say you can ignore a friend request and the person sending it will never know, I'm not so sure about that. They also say you can defriend people– a verb that will make the dictionary as soon as we realize how great it is and start using it in real life– without their being aware of it.

The only problem is they might start wondering why they never received your "Accepted as a friend" notification. Or see items popping up on their home page saying you've "gone to the bathroom for the fourth time today," have posted a photo of your boss from the office Christmas party that if you hadn't made public could have been your retirement fund, or have tagged them for the tenth time in "Twenty-five Things You Didn't Want to Know About Me But I'm Going to Tell You Anyway."

Then again, they might be too busy searching for new friends to even notice.


 Formerly of Richmond, Barry Gottlieb – when he's not soaking his thumbs in ice– now hangs his Mad Dog hat in California's city by the bay.