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How Many Friends Is Too Many? 5000? Then imechanica is too many!

Mike Ciavarella's picture


How Many Friends Is Too Many?

One MySpace exec has even surprised himself by friending a potato. This particular russet has 2,965 friends.

May 26, 2008 Issue


The songwriter Buzzy Linhart once
said, "you've got to have friends." indisputable. But 5,000 friends?
Questionable. The seeming excessiveness of that concept is part of the
reason the social-networking site Facebook
caps the number of friends any person can gather at that lofty figure.
Yet when the popular Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch posted recently
that Facebook was about to end the limit, the item garnered a lot of
attention, and even some excitement. The report turned out to be a
false alarm—Facebook still maintains a 5,000-friend ceiling, a company
spokesperson told me, and has no plans to raise the limit in the
immediate future. But the episode evoked a lot of questions about the
nature of "friendship" when it comes to sites like Facebook and MySpace. How many friends is too many? And how friendly do you have to be with someone to become an online friend?

Facebook doesn't want to dictate rules of friending behavior to its
users, the company is explicit in stating that the purpose of
maintaining a list is not to see whose friend belt has the most
notches. The point is to keep in closer contact with those who are
already in one's social circle. The average Facebook user has about 105
mutually accepted friends, and fewer than a thousand people are bumping
against the company-imposed limit. But some of those who have reached
that number insist that it's too meager. Jeff Pulver, an entrepreneur and technology
consultant who often spends 12 hours a day on Facebook for work and
play, despises the restriction. When someone asks to be added to
Pulver's cohort, he or she gets a message reading, "Jeff has too many
friends," a phrase that doesn't compute with Pulver. "Who am I to say
no to friendship?" Pulver asks. He has a waiting list of 500 would-be
friends. Worse, when someone he wants as a Facebook friend asks in, he
must kick someone else out to make room.

contrast, MySpace users don't ever have to say no; the philosophy is
different there. "At MySpace, the term 'friend' goes beyond 'people I
know in the world'," says Steve Pearman, the company's senior vice
president for product strategy. In addition to people they actually
know—you know, the kind of buddies you'd accompany to a rock
concert—MySpacers routinely add actual rock stars and other celebrities
to their friend lists. (Facebook allows well-known people to gather
large communities by establishing a separate profile where people can
sign up to be fans. But saying that you're a fan of Barack Obama or Amy
Winehouse isn't the same as including them among your friends.)
Comedian Dane Cook had 2,372,807 MySpace friends as of last week, and
would have a more successful film career if his friends actually turned
out to see his movies. Pearman says that MySpace has no problem with
profiles that aren't even human. The MySpace exec has even surprised
himself by friending a potato. Let me repeat: a potato. This particular
russet, by the way, has 2,965 friends.

by now you're getting the idea that a friend at Facebook or MySpace is
not necessarily the same as a real friend, the kind who brings you
chicken soup when you're sick and posts multiple favorable reviews
about your book on Amazon. In addition to 20 or 30 genuine BFFs, you
might have someone you met at a conference, the kid sitting behind you
in Spanish class, someone who wants access to you as a customer or a
guitar player in a local band with whom you will never exchange a word.
"Instead of 'friend,' it might be better to say, 'I'm linked to you',"
says Clay Shirky, author of "Here Comes Everybody," a book about social

But such online linking does have deep
social implications, and as one's friend list grows, so do some
problems. People judge each other by whom they list as friends.
Inevitably, human noise finds its way into a collection of friends,
because people tend to cave in and agree to friendship when asked by
someone they barely know, or in some cases don't know at all. In real
life, we are spared the explicitness of a bald request to be a friend,
but there's no such luck online—even ignoring someone's friend request
doesn't gloss over the fact that you're rejecting him or her. "It's
socially awkward, and very hard to draw the line," says Danah Boyd, a
researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Information.

if you don't draw that line, your list will fill up with semi-strangers
and you'll be less likely to share personal information you want your
real friends to see. (Facebook offers a way to classify your friend
list to let certain clusters see different sorts of things, but it's a
pain to go through your list and categorize people.) And making those
distinctions is easier said than done. "You know what it's like when
you're figuring out who to invite to your wedding—the one day of your
life that people will remember, and you have to pick who's in or out?"
says Shirky. "Facebook is like that every day."




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