How many friends do you have on Facebook? The statistics available are not particularly reliable, but most people appear to have over 300 on average; millennials, unsurprisingly, have more than the older generations. I wonder if these statistics are rather conservative; glancing at the profiles of my own friends, most of them have far more than 300 – I know some with over a thousand. Even in the 21st century, I think most people would find that somewhat extreme; as such, it seems a good place to start a few musings on friendship in the modern world.

It seems rather unlikely that somebody can actually have ties of friendship with over a thousand people. The infamous ‘Dunbar’s Number’ theorem states that a single person can only really have effective relationships with around 150 individuals – this is why tribes, military formations, and traditional village populations tend to hover around this number. Developments on the theme, and my own personal inclinations, suggest that true ‘friendship’ can only be held with a much smaller number of people – perhaps no more than around twenty. Close friends are few and far between – maybe six or so?

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. What do we really mean when we say ‘friendship’, ‘friend’, or ‘close friend’? The Oxford English Dictionary is always a good start:

‘Friend: A person with whom one has developed a close and informal relationship of mutual trust and intimacy; (more generally) a close acquaintance.’

With how many of your Facebook friends do you share a relationship of mutual trust and intimacy? In truth, probably not that many. With a lot – perhaps most – of our Facebook Friends, we have relationships perhaps better described by the OED’s second definition of friendship:

‘A person who is not hostile or an enemy.’

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True friends?

Indeed, most of our Facebook friends are probably better described as acquaintances – people we know in some capacity, and whom we are not hostile to. However, sometimes Facebook stretches even this rather broad definition. I would imagine that we all have a ‘friend’ or two on Facebook who we don’t really like, or perhaps somebody we don’t even know. Indeed, it is amazing with what liberality people appear to throw around friend requests; I have received them on multiple occasions from people I have never even met, but with whom I just happen to share a mutual friend with.

Of course, the readiness to send friend requests does mean that the number of ‘friends’ you have on Facebook tends to bloom over time. It would seem rude not to accept from somebody you might meet again; only strangers or one-off meetings are fair game for rejection. My current, half-followed rule for myself is to only accept friend requests from people I have actually met in person and have had a conversation of some kind with. It cuts down the number somewhat, though as you meet more and more people and have fleeting conversations with them occasionally, there is inexorable ‘friend creep’.

So how has this affected our views on friendship? I think it has in some ways cheapened the meaning of the word. A ‘friend’ is now somebody you have met, rather than someone you actually know well. This can make friendship a rather shallow affair – meet somebody in the club, in class, or at an event, and they are now your friend. You probably know little about them, and they little about you, but somehow you are still ‘friends’. While I am focusing on Facebook, much of what I am writing can be applied to the online world as a whole, from Twitter to gaming to the blogosphere. We interact daily with a multitude of people online – we like their posts and pictures, occasionally send messages to them; sometimes we even get responses! But this sort of interaction is incredibly shallow, don’t you think? I also wonder how ‘real’ or meaningful it all is.

I do not think we are ever truly ‘ourselves’ online; we construct identities to be presented to the digital world.  Our ‘instant’ messages are usually edited, or show only a particular aspect of our personality; the photographs we post of ourselves are carefully chosen and selected (and filtered) to portray ourselves in the best light. Indeed, something I have noticed is the general overabundance of vapid positivity online. Everybody ‘likes’ everybody’s profile picture and types in some inane comment; we secretly compete with each other to see how many thumbs-up we can get. We ‘like’ posts and then forget about them a millisecond later. Exclamation marks and ‘lols’ (or ‘kek’ of course) abound.

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Are these symbols the best way of expressing friendship?

I don’t actually have too much of a problem with this, you might be surprised to know. Don’t think I am some neo-luddite curmudgeon; I love the online world, and think social media is a fantastic way of keeping in touch with people and how they are doing. However, primarily-online relationships are no substitute for real friendship.

What do I mean by ‘real’ friendship? Firstly, I think a level of physicality is required – in other words, you need to meet face-to-face, with no digital filter between you. You need to have shared contact and conversation on a semi-regular basis at some point in your lives. And, of course, you need to really like your friend as a human being.

Going deeper than that, you might also have your ‘close friends’, the people you are most familiar and friendly with. Not everybody, I think, does have really close friends – some are happier having good friendly relationships with a lot of people, and that is completely fine. However, I am not one of those people – I do need extremely close friends; a small band of people I can almost call brothers. Many of these individuals I have known for years – it used to be a bit of a joke in our family that to be a friend of mine you had to have known me for about a decade! This is of course exaggerated, but what it tells you is that I value time and deep mutual knowledge in cultivating close friendships.

Close friends, to me, are people who you will do anything for, and who will reciprocate it. They will both comfort you and tell you the blunt truth, share adventures and hardship alike, and you will willingly do the same for them. You might not see them for years, but as soon as you meet up again it’s like you had only left each other the day before. They will have their differences with you, and vice versa, but those differences are respected and don’t get in the way of the fundamental bonds of friendship. You will always have a bed to sleep in at a close friend’s house, and you will gladly put them up if they appear standing in the rain outside your front door. When you are wallowing in the depths of your darkest hour, when you feel that there is nobody to turn to, they will be there for you, and you for them.

I have several very close friends – I hope they know who they are. I feel honoured to know them and to be able to stand by them in the battle of Life. I love them, I trust them, and I honestly don’t know what I would do without them.

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Tolkien and Lewis – two men who knew the meaning of friendship.

Facebook, for all its wonders, can never replicate the relationship I have with those friends. That sort of relationship can only come from long nurturing, mutual understanding and growing trust. True friendship isn’t about ‘likes’ and inane
comments – it is about unthinking generosity, trust, and ultimately about love. To end, I will hand the torch to the mighty C.S Lewis, who in the Four Loves coined perhaps the greatest defence of true friendship ever penned:

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

Amen to that. Amen to that indeed.