Reframing Friendship

Michael Metzger

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

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1 David Brooks, “The Self-Reliant Generation, The New York Times, January 8, 2016.

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12 Comments

  1. I often think of how startling it is that we are plagued with so much loneliness in a culture that boasts of being so “connected.” It’s no secret that the pressure to stay constantly “live” has robbed us of intention and presence when we’re face to face. Even date nights and coffees with friends are constantly slightly unhinged with each party glancing down at a phone to make sure they haven’t “missed something.”

  2. There is no question that Facebook is a center institution with the power to shape and change culture. It is also true that historically friendship had a certain definition and character. These kinds of relationships matter and will endure even when technology expands and dilutes the meaning of “friend.” But words change their meaning over time — they always have. Rather than lament the change, let’s reinforce the reality of what the historic meaning of friendship requires. And let’s not blame millennials for what is a natural cultural process of words evolving over time. “Friends” are now a function of social media. Friends are a function of real presence. There is a cost and qualitative difference between them that makes all the difference. We need a few less “clicks” and a few more unhurried conversations and walks in the woods.

  3. John, I agree with your assertion that friends are a function of “real presence.” Sadly, I find that women are much more skillful than men in developing deep, long-term, meaningful friendships. Do any of Mike’s readers have a sense why that might be?
    Secondly, I have watched my daughter make great use of the social media in sustaining friends from high school and college. What an advantage these tools give to them compared to the expensive long-distant calls we needed to make when I was their age.

  4. Tim, what an interesting question!

    Thinking about it, perhaps it is because they do things together. . . . How many times do we laugh at what is often turned into a joke of sorts, where all the women get up and go to the ladies’ room at the same time?!

    Another issue is that of traditional “women’s work” – not to open up a can of “gender” here – but much of what women traditionally “do” takes time, time women can also spend together. Watching and raising children, for example. Cooking. Shopping. Hair, nail and workout regimens. And many women seem to gravitate to a more communal or group setting.

    Friendship takes time and presence – although there is a sense of “presence” even on facebook. Believe it or not, I have some very meaningful “friends” I have never met in person! And that brings us perhaps to look at the “presence” of Christ, doesn’t it. . . .? Perhaps it boils down to what we pay attention to.

    Much to think about.

    By the way – does “center institution” have a certain special meaning? I get the idea people are talking about it here in a particular, defined way.

    I am concerned with this idea of “re-naming” and watching words become something very different. For example where suicide becomes “death with dignity.”

  5. Marble:

    “Center” simply refers to the fact that not all institutions are equal in terms of power or influence. A degree from Dartmouth College generally carries more weight (more cultural capital) than one from Dordt College.

    I like your comments regarding unique practices of women. When you observe that women seem to do more things that “take time,” what if men carried babies for nine months instead of women? Maybe we’d be better at friendships!

  6. I believe there are nuggets of truth in both the article and the comments. There are just a few observations I have.
    I don’t believe relationships can exist to the degree in which they are perceived on facebook. That undoubtedly redefines the meaning of the word “friend.” If I tipped over tomorrow, I would expect less than 1/3 of my facebook “friends” would attend my funeral. I’m sure there would be plenty of kind comments on my wall that I could not reply to from beyond the grave, but that’s just one of several creepy unintended consequence of having a facebook page. Friendships are not nurtured on social media. They are consumed. Information about them shows up on a “feed.” Coincidence?
    The “missing out” phenomenon of Facebook is really dangerous, and I believe it’s shaping how we interact with one another. Couple that with multiple generations of people who were raised to believe they can “do anything they put their mind to” and we are in the crosshairs of a perfect storm that will drive western culture to a shallower level than already it is. Friendship has devolved into a numbers game, particularly for Millennials. Everyone has a handful of friends, but the rest are really considered followers, would you agree? We call that group of people our “tribe.” The importance of having a tribe been drilled into our heads by every self-proclaimed thought leader, whether they are Christian or not. Now, the thought leader space is over-saturated with large numbers of people shouting the same words over one another, competing for the loudest voice. It’s too much to absorb, so we tune it out and focus only on our own voices. The cycle continues.
    I would not be alone in suggesting that deep down, our souls are screaming for real love and connection. Unfortunately, our ability to actually connect with one another is deteriorating because of things like facebook. Love is not a numbers game. I notice this in churches, too. We all read the Tipping Point by Gladewell, and we know all anthropological literature points to the 150 rule. Last I heard, the neocortex ratio for relationships was 147.8 people. Let’s forget about facebook for a moment. Let’s forget about the number of churches that show up on our news-feeds everyday looking for a thumbs up or a like. Do churches ever take this number of 150 into consideration?

  7. I have a sense that the neocortex ratio for relationships is why the small group has taken on such an important role in the mega church (even the mid-size church). The large multi-thousand in attendance on Sunday morning is overwhelming to most, if not all, parishioners and leaves little opportunity for relationship connection. Unfortunately, the small group becomes its participant’s “church within a church” and often dilutes the larger church’s mission of spiritual transformation and the practice of a 4-chapter Gospel.

  8. Excellent essay. How much of what you cite as Facebook problems also applies to many churches? There are many people who attend church but who remain lonely. Those who do have true friendships are very intentional about getting into a small group. Seems like the first century church with its oikos (household) might still be the best model. Thoughts?

  9. Interesting observations. But is Facebook truly the culprit? Certainly it is the biggest target. I remember a particular co-worker in the late 90’s who referred to nearly everyone as “her great friend.” (And she was clearly not a Millennial.) It always made me chuckle, as I knew she knew nothing of substance of my life – but there I was, on her “great friend” list. Facebook seems to be nothing more than another platform to maintain a connection. To me, a post on FB is no different than a brief chat after church on Sunday. Here’s some small talk to keep a frame of reference. “Hi, I’m thinking of you and I enjoy hearing your news.” Switch into inbox mode? Now we’re talking coffee or the occasional lunch. Daily exchanges about deep, meaningful issues? Are they any less important because they are electronic? The point is people have and will have different definitions and expectations of “friendship.” Much of it is cultural. My favorite frame of friendship came to me as I was settling into life as an expat in Switzerland. The Swiss, I was told, were like pineapples – hard surface to crack, sweet and rewarding on the inside. Americans on the other hand were like peaches. Soft at first, but then tougher at the center. Personally I tend toward the pineapple model. This makes me grateful for FB, it creates the illusion of intimacy while keeping what I believe to be a proper arm’s length distance. So why would this pineapple have 400+ “friends”? Because you never know when arm’s length might become inbox. When the hard shell will crack. And why would you want to limit the possibilities? During my recent illness I have been stunned by the amount of inbox support I have received from the wider, beyond 150, circle. People from high school, college, jobs from decades ago. Will they go away now that my ordeal is ending? Most will. One or two will not. How sad should I have missed them.

  10. Genuine contact, connection and communication is independent of technology. The luxury of friends for stability and security also taken for granted. The ‘virtual’ contact maybe a life-line to some. Disturbing the unforced rhythm of grace is easily done when desires become demands. Number crunching by boxing in the resonance of any individual is a real danger.Sensitivity and sensibility reduced to truth without spirit.

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