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More Friends, Less Love

Thanks to the Internet, we all have a ton of friends don’t we?

It’s a beautiful thing, being connected, but it’s also quite unreal. Literally: how many of your digital acquaintances do you actually see? How many of them do you actually hang out with? How many of them would show up for you when you needed them most? Probably not a lot.

This is the sad reality of friending online, the thing that Facebook won’t tell you as they steal your information. The New York Times is on the case of this, exploring what it means to have “real friends” in a story about friendship in the age of social media.

What’s most remarkable is a section that muses over who of your digital friend group would make it to an event like your funeral. While some believe that digital interactions enable offline interactions, others question this – and the results are pretty sad.

These findings jibe with the research of Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford. He has theorized that “group size” of both humans and nonhuman primates — the number of people (or, say, chimpanzees) one can maintain social cohesion with — correlates to “relative neocortical volume,” or the ratio of the neocortex to the rest of the brain.

The oft-cited “Dunbar’s number” is an average of 150 casual friends for humans (really, a range of 100 to 200). These are the people who might come to your wedding or funeral.

Within this roster, there are embedded layers of intimacy that grow smaller by a factor of three: 50 of these make the next cut to buddies, about 15 are good friends, around five confidants form our circle of trust, and finally we have an average of 1.5 people we deem our closest relationships. (Conversely, we can keep track of roughly 500 acquaintances and 1,500 faces we can match to names.)

Wow. What a sad reality! But also…no shit. Did we expect anything less?

If anything, this is a lesson in having deeper relationships, to grow the plants that are thriving in your garden. That’s been a hope this year for me and I’m fairly certain I’ve been doing a good job. Still, I can be better. We all can be! Why not strive to have better relationships? Not connections: relationships.

When we start thinking of our interactions differently, perhaps this will be the key to a better understanding of each other.

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