On Friendship

Last week I finally got around to reading the only Andrew Sullivan book I’d neglected: “Love Undectectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival.”

It is three essays on various topics, connected loosely on the AIDS epidemic and his reflections of living through it.  The third struck me as the obvious gem. It’s on friendship.

Is there anything more central to our lives that we give less serious thought?

Sullivan places friendship on a shimmering pedestal, and its hard not to concur after reading his assessment.  Yet, compared with the thought devoted to family and romantic love, serious consideration of friendship is virtually nonexistent.  Part of the reason for this, he argues, is the inherent nature of friendships…

Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out. […] In fact, you can tell how strong a friendship is by the silence that envelops it.

He goes on to challenge the primacy that our culture places on family and romantic love.  He notes that this was not always the case, as  older societies were much less reticent about honoring the immense value of platonic, chosen relationships. Contrasting it with romantic love he explains,

When a friend is apart from a friend she doesn’t desperately need her, feel abandoned without her, unable to conceive of a future without her presence.  She merely misses her, misses what her presence does for her, misses the familiarity that builds friendship, like a predictable tide the builds dunes.

I wonder, did the essay speak to me now because I’m slowly reaching a point in life where friendships seem tougher to obtain and maintain?  Childhood is all about friends, a mix of copying each other while pretending to be unique.  Leaving home for college is the pinnacle of friendship, living and breathing with friends (old and new) while figuring out how to exist away from home.  But afterwards?

It isn’t until we’re thrown out into the world for good and become swamped by daily struggles that it hits us: almost nothing is more valuable than our friendships.

You know the people that deep down, you truly consider your “best” friends. They aren’t necessarily the ones you speak with the most, live next to, or have the most memories with.  We simply all have people that, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint, make our lives feel better by their mere presence.   They often never know it.

Sullivan sums it up beautifully: 

Love solves a need, answers a calling, scratches an itch.  Friendship does none of these things.  It merely flourishes, a sign that human beings can chose one another for company, enjoy each other’s selves, and accompany each other on an enterprise, with no thought of gain or purpose.

Friendship Limit

Social networks ease the friction of maintaining relationships.  But do they really allow us to have more friends than before?  Some research says No.

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who now works at Oxford University, concluded that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop. Extrapolating from the brain sizes and social networks of apes, Dr Dunbar suggested that the size of the human brain allows stable networks of about 148. Rounded to 150, this has become famous as “the Dunbar number”.

So the classic idea is that groups can only all know each other and interact with 150 others.  That’s it.  But even that number is way to high to call a friendship network.  Consider…

Moreover, sociologists also distinguish between a person’s wider network, as described by the Dunbar number or something similar, and his social “core”. Peter Marsden, of Harvard University, found that Americans, even if they socialise a lot, tend to have only a handful of individuals with whom they “can discuss important matters”. A subsequent study found, to widespread concern, that this number is on a downward trend.

Applying that to Facebook we get these numbers.  First, the average person has 120 Facebook friends, with women having slightly more.  And how much do these average users actually interact with others…

Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six

What about those Facebookers (mostly those who were college students when it all began) who have 500 friends or more?

Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.

The take-away…

Put differently, people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,”