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Recently, news that people are leaving Facebook and un-friending dozens of friends has caused us to remember an important question still left unanswered : Will we ever become truly Borg?

It started a few weeks ago when a British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested you couldn’t be “good” friends with more than 150 people. On the face of it, that didn’t seem hard to believe. Plus, the average Facebook user has about 150 -200 friends, so, not a problem. Then followed the story that Facebook lost – that’s right, lost – active users recently. There’s some debate about the data, but possibly 3 million users departed the network last month. Nonetheless the story itself reflects some sort of reaction in our society about how much socializing we’re doing online these days. Finally, this excellent observation piece from our friend Stephen Fells describes his recent disillusionment with and a trend amongst his friends to “un-friend’ hundreds, even thousands, of contacts.

So what’s going on?

I think a number of issues are converging today in digital social networking. To understand them, we might remind ourselves of some fundamental points of human psychology. Aristotle imagined that man was, by nature, a social animal, but he could hardly have imagined the social systems of 2000 years later. Others certainly did. The psychologist Jean Piaget comes to mind: His studies of how children learn provide a framework for understanding where we are five years on with Facebook and Twitter. Piaget noticed that, at first, children try to assimilate everything the same way. After they learn to stuff a cheerio into their mouths, they try to do it with every new thing they encounter, such as the toy car. Eventually, children learn to accommodate the different requirements of different objects.Eat the cheerio, push the toy car.

Perhaps that’s where we are with social media today. First, we tried to assimilate it into our existing social structures. Most of our analog history has been spent discoursing with each other in person, where we share personal stories, tell jokes, talk about sports (modern conquests) and avoid certain debates such as politics, sex and religion with any except our inner circle. Within the means given us – from stories were told verbally to exchanges of letters and emails – our friendships took on the logic of the communication tools. Even when someone took out the baby pictures, it was accompanied by verbal story-telling, followed by approving oohs and aahs.

Not entirely unlike posting a photo on Facebook and receiving comments; but slightly different.

Today’s digital social networking only reproduces a small part of these formerly analog interactions. You can share some news with others, but only a few hundred characters or words. You can share it more frequently; and receive it more often, too. That’s a huge change. You post a photo, but not  the accompanying story (with the exception of blogging). Even video sharing on YouTube has a different logic than pen-pal letters, because it occurs as a public production, not a personal exchange. Speaking, writing, painting, dancing, computing all have different ways of expressing meaning. They reach different audiences, of different sizes, simply differently.

Piaget’s analysis, then, might be that we’re still trying to stuff Facebook and Twitter into our mouths, when they require an entirely different behavioral logic to be used (and enjoyed) properly per se. For youngsters, that logic might be easier to divine; for oldsters, especially those who grew up analog, it might be more challenging.

This leads us to ask if Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn not only require different approaches to social networking, but create them, too. We discussed this in Which Came First, Twitter or the Tweet? There may be no single moment in time which we can point to and say social networking either caused or accommodated a change in how people communicate with each other. We might only be able to observe that such a change has occurred already. But we can ask, If such a change has occurred, so what?

That, I suspect, is where the question of how many “friends” you can have online comes in to play.

Here we enter the world of the semiologists like Umberto Eco, Charles Pierce and Ferdinand de Saussure. Semiotics studies the interplay between signs, symbols and meaning. Simply put, it examines how we purposefully express ourselves to each other. Importantly, semiotics notes that different mediums make different kinds of expression possible. Marshall McLuan summed it up with his observation that the medium becomes the message. The letter varies greatly from the television broadcast; a painting “works” differently than a music video. And, interestingly, not everyone can “speak” using all of the same media.

As a result, “how” we speak influences “what” we can say. That, in turn, affects the relationships we build.

Now, back to digital social networking. I suspect we’re reaching a point in the  journey where digital tools don’t reflect our analog social systems, Some seek to change them purposefully. What can be said on Twitter is distinctly limited to the way it can be said on Twitter. As a result, our relationship on Twitter are of a different “quality” than those by phone or in person. Furthermore, not everyone will be able to fully appropriate certain tools, just like not everyone becomes fluent in Mandarin Chinese or a musical prodigy later in life.  Otherwise, we’d all be able to paint like Picasso at any age; it’s not just a matter of learning to do so.

Here is where the issue of “too many friends” becomes a challenge. If we had to manage 1000 friends at a dinner party, few of us could do it. Same if they were pen-pals (even email ones). But is it possible to have 1000 digital friends, or 10 million as Lady Gaga has on Twitter? That depends upon whether you are still trying to stuff social media into your mouth hole, instead of using them according to their own logic. Even if we consider an analog example – such as writing a book – we’d hardly doubt that JK Rowling can have millions of “fans” and interact with hundreds of them at a book signing. Even if she cannot have what some consider “deep, meaningful” relationships with all of them, she can nonetheless manage them all; perhaps more so than with any analog media (remember the mailing list?).

Asking how many friends we can maintain on Facebook might be the wrong question. Digital social media may not maintain friendships in the same way – with the same logic – as phone calls, letters and dinner parties do. In fact, it may not even create “friendships” in the same way, or of the same quality (i.e., type but not necessarily better/worse) than other media. If we’re looking for deep discourse or intellectual exchanges on Facebook, we will surely be disappointed in what has become the “Land of the One Liner” for most of us. Who’s to say that 500 “Happy Birthday” postings from semi-strangers aren’t as good as 5 from “close” friends? Certainly, they are different, but I’d be hard pressed to say they were less sincere.

Already a new logic of expression is emerging on Facebook. We have learned not to post “controversial” topics of politics, environmentalism and religion because the resulting discussion, constrained by short post lengths, creates only frustration and hard feelings amongst people unable to fully express their thoughts, or read each others’ intentions through one-liner interactions. Imagine if the Treaty of Versaille had been negotiated by Twitter! Such limitation built into the medium  – such as the lack of non-verbal cues – means the kinds of interactions we create, and the resulting friendships we have, are different.

There’s also the possibility that Facebook, Twitter and other networks aren’t anything more than giant book clubs where people share simple mundania and the network owners don’t care what kind of social interactions occur, as long as they can monetize it. They just want to sell tickets. It’s up to use to make our interpersonal relationships work, or not. So their systems will never grow to sustain interactions beyond the basic chit-chat of a stadium full of football fans.They provide some tools – to create friend “lists” to aggregated friends into inner circles and mere acquaintances – but beyond that, they really don’t care to make it more meaningful.

[There is also the scary thought, a la Jean Paul Satre and Stanley Kubrick, that most people don’t have anything meaningful to say to each other, but let’s not go there…]

Now consider that all of these issues come together to create a new way of creating friendships and interacting socially. A new logic, based upon limited bursts of expression, non-verbal, without visual cue, and transmitted constantly, and partially commercialized. The social networking outcome of decades of “it takes a village” social engineering resulting in a new social gestalt, complete with its own language, media and logic. Whether or not it can be sustained depends upon how we answer the question:

Do we want to become Borg?

Which leads us to the question, How many friends should you have online? Simple: As many or as few as you want. But don’t make the decision based upon whether or not they live up to the relationship expectations of our analog friendships, but of the new form of limited-content friendship. Still, virtual friendships in the future might yet turn out as well as Shakespeare hoped:

A friend is one
that knows you as you are,
understands where
you have been,
accepts what you have become,
and gently allows you to grow


P.S. You can tweet that quote from Shakespeare, too.

P.P.S. Post-scripts are so olde school.