Friending and Following (and being followed)

Every now and then I go through my various social media lists and pare back the numbers. I read about the Dunbar number a few years ago, in the book The Tipping Point, and have always found it intriguing that my own number – of FB friends, the social media equivalent of Dunbar – hovers around 100, the lower end of the casual friend scale, less than a tribe but roomy enough to to accommodate friends new and old, acquaintances young and old. Every now and then I do a “cull” of the list, to keep it relevant and exclusive to those I care to know about and/or who I think care to know about me.

More recently, I learned of the various degrees of the Dunbar number, and had another look at my list. Who would I put in that list of close friends (~50), and then the “circle of fifteen”, and then down to the close support group of just five? Thankfully, no formal actual lists are required (although I have designated five people as close friends on FB, and also have many on Limited Profile) but it is interesting to look at lists and think about levels and circles in that way.

FB is not the only list, just the most obvious – the one that clearly designates contacts as Friends, and has turned the act of connecting into the verb “to friend”. Other friend lists, such as an address book in email (or even an old-fashioned pen-and-paper address book), do exist but seem much more passive and historical. An address book can be allowed some fallow entries, as the list is not visible to others and one never knows when an old address might be required.

Other social media are less interactive, perhaps by design or by intent. For me, LinkedIn is somewhat interactive, but the list is both more restrictive and expansive. I use LinkedIn for what I think it was intended for – connections of a work or business or collegial nature rather than just friendship. While I do limit my connections to people I actually know (i.e. I don’t accept connections if I don’t recognize someone’s name or at least have some idea as to how I might know them), I’m less likely to cull connections over time – once a business contact, always a business contact. For work reasons, I’m more inclined to have a network on LinkedIn than I am on FB. I guess this would be the acquaintance level.

Following is more closely associated with Twitter. I’m a passive follower, meaning that I a) don’t follow many people and b) don’t receive emails or alerts for every tweet. I do get alerted when I’m mentioned in a tweet (an extremely rare occurrence). I’m not on Twitter that often – every few days or so – and when I am my first tendency after scrolling through recent tweets is to cull my “following” list to de-clutter the feed.

Being followed, however, is a whole different story. While it’s supposed to be desirable to have a following, it creates a sense of obligation – to be an online presence, to be frequent or at least regular, and to maintain a quality of material or of opinion to that keeps your followers following. This can require a considerable effort, in the writing, the breadth of subject material, and the marketing. Never a big one for self-promotion, I tend towards the message-in-a-bottle approach – I put stuff out there, and wonder if anyone will find it, but I don’t really expect that anyone will (although I’m quite happy when someone does, and actually finds it interesting).

It’s the strange dichotomy of the Internet – that it can be a place for enhanced connections and even intimacy (the immediacy of a response afforded by chat spaces and messaging, without the proximity of face-to-face contact can create the feeling of safety and openness akin to a confessional or bedroom), while simultaneously a podium or stage for opinion, diatribe or performance. Perhaps it has become the campfire circle of the modern age, where a tribe or clan gathers to share stories and information, to argue and celebrate, to begin romances and to mark milestones of the group and individuals. In today’s world however, my tribe is just that – mine. For each of the members of my tribe has a tribe of their own, perhaps overlapping with mine, but perhaps only with ourselves, the world a series of Venn circles, overlapping but distinct.

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