The average Facebook user has 338 friends. But “Dunbar’s number,” developed in the 1990s, indicates it’s not possible to have that many friends. So does the Bible.
On February 4th Facebook turned 12 years old. There are now over one billion users, including almost 60 percent of American adults (and 73 percent of kids age 12-17). Two-thirds of total users visit the site on a daily basis. Among millennials, user numbers are growing fastest according to Pew Research Center surveys.
The average Facebook user has 338 friends. Fifteen percent have friend lists topping 500. But these figures don’t square with “Dunbar’s number.” In the 1990s, Oxford University Professor Robin Dunbar conducted a series of studies on the neocortex, the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language. He discovered how it limits us to managing 150 acquaintances, no matter how sociable we are.
Dunbar then studied whether Facebook is stretching the brain’s capacity for social networks. He compared the online “traffic” of users with thousands of friends to those with hundreds. There is no discernible difference between the two.
“You can have 1,500 friends,” he notes, “but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world.” This correlates with research indicating social groupings throughout the centuries, from neolithic villages to modern office environments, have never exceeded 150. And the number of actual friends in this circle is likely smaller.
Consider Christ’s circle. At one time, he had over 5,000 followers. But Jesus routinely reduced the size of the group by upping the ante (Jn. 6). It likely shrunk to less than 100, as Jesus had 12 disciples, “many” women who financially supported him (Lk. 8), and an additional 72 followers he sent out to preach on one occasion. At the end of his three-year ministry, we see Jesus tell only his 12 disciples “now you are my friends” (Jn. 15:15). There might have been more, but why such a small group?
For starters, friendship requires more than following. It includes appropriate divulging. Jesus told his friends, “I have told you everything the father has told me.” He didn’t divulge whatever he felt like sharing. He divulged what was beneficial for his followers.
Second, friendship includes reciprocating. Jesus gave the twelve responsibilities. They responded, taking on assigned tasks. In my experience, most folks are poor at reciprocating—returning a favor with a favor. That’s not quid pro quo. It’s friendship.
Third, friendship requires taking risks. Friends will hurt you (“faithful are the wounds of a friend” Prov. 27:6). My friends tell me of my faults. It’s often painful but always productive. Most folks avoid pain. Jesus didn’t. His friend Judas betrayed him. The risk is not that you will get hurt (you will) but that you will on occasion be betrayed.
This understanding of friendship is dissolving. Facebook plays a part as an influential institution. By definition, institutions are reality defining and boundary forming. Take marriage. It pictures—defines—the gospel as the marriage of Jesus and his bride, the church. This forms boundaries, making same sex marriage out of bounds. At one time, this made sense to most folks. Now marriage is being redefined by several institutions, including education, entertainment, politics, and the judiciary. Same sex marriage is no longer out of bounds for most folks.
Facebook is an institution. It’s redefining “friend.” It’s now a verb. Or it’s thinned out to anyone you “like.” There’s no numerical limit. You can divulge as frequently and as much as you like (what used to be considered narcissism). You don’t have to reciprocate. You can “unfriend” anyone who hurts your feelings. This is friendship dumbed down.
I blame Americans in general, and millennials in particular for this thinning out of friendship. Millennials are the fastest growing Facebook users while being naively skeptical of institutions. Consequently, few millennials, including Christians, recognize they’re “in the middle of redefining, and thinning out, the nature of affiliation.”1
Albert Einstein reflected his Jewish roots when he said the most important thing you can do is name something. God created by naming things. Adam joined in by naming the animals. Properly naming things is a big deal to God. Center institutions are most powerful in naming things. They’re taken seriously. Facebook is Exhibit A.
Genuine friendships are also a big deal to God. Moses and Abraham were called “friends of God.” God seeks to befriend the lost. When we embrace the gospel, we are “restored to friendship with God” (Rom. 5:10). God’s capacity for friendship is infinite. Ours is not. We likely have the capacity for 12 to 15 genuine friendships. But you’d have to take the Christian faith more seriously than you do Facebook to live within that limit.
Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike
1 David Brooks, “The Self-Reliant Generation, The New York Times, January 8, 2016.