“A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” (falsely attributed to Josef Stalin)

“Each friend represents a world in us.” (Anais Nin)

I.
Recently added to the Oxford Dictionary: Dunbar’s Number. If you don’t know what that is, the answer is 150. If that doesn’t mean anything, it can be further defined as the number of people evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar said can be had in a cohesive social group. Actually Dunbar did not set the number at 150; it just happens to be at the midpoint of his 100-200 people hypothesis.

Dunbar’s findings released in 1991 was about group cohesion in the tribal societies he was studying. As we do not live in tribal societies, we could ignore his study about cohesion or we could ask what it has to do with us. The answer to that is the study also addresses the capacity to form social bonds. The formation of these bonds seems lost to many in this new century.

II.

Where I work, friendship is formed quickly among our client base. Among those we serve is an earnest desire to know as many people in what is usually the best way possible, even if at times it does include a fair amount of selfishness and the need to be popular. Our clients are not unique in that way. But now we are addressing their means to advance the need for popularity and friendship with the ultimate numeric body count. That is we are working through a policy on social media.
I don’t like dealing with the privacy headaches a new policy involves, but its time is coming. Case managers are already having internet safety classes and I can only trust they will do their job well. The bigger issue is clients will not always understand why the staff they look up to and with whom they have a level of legitimate friendship will be unable to call them “friends.” And it can difficult to explain to our clients and many others for that matter the difference between real friendship and the body count of social media. That those we serve now be introduced to a further erosion of the understanding of friendship is not a good thing. (And I am not anti-social media, but I do see its limits.)

III.

It is hard to explain the reality to many. The need for popularity is born in modern adolescence and now has its ultimate ally in the digital world. This need continues in spite of the fact that legitimate social ties are diminishing at an incredible rate. We have cheapened the word friend and it is increasingly difficult to get many out of their sixteen year old mentality about what the word means.

Social media does not own all the blame. That belongs as much to forces like the diminishing importance of the family and the presence of cliques, political parties, and social groups that care more for a singularity of thought than the whole person. Friendship is never about this singularity just as it is not about a popularity that ignores the hard work of getting to know another person.

Looking back on the quote by Nin, our friendships are worlds in and of themselves and they cannot be nurtured when we see only a narrow commonality to be had with others or the need to have an unlimited number of friends. Looking at the more sinister quote, when we do these things we move beyond the importance of another person into the realm of statistics.

IV

What does this mean for us? Why should we think at all about a number that comes from an Oxford professor? It has everything to do with capacity. Make a list of your friends and ignore concepts like true friends, soul mates etc. Now go down the list and see how many middle names you know or if you know the person’s favorite color or the names of their children. You quickly discover the meaning of capacity. Our tiny brains can only hold so much information and though Dunbar would not use the language, I would say our hearts can only carry so much ultimate care.

What this is really about is the models we give our lives and how we operate in those models. Emerging for us is a model of networks and connections and from these we are forming new definitions of friendship. The days when families honored their extended nature leading to the bonding that informed how friendships are formed is fading. This is said not to be judgmental in anyway, but a critique is necessary. I offer only one: networks do little more than seek to replace the family as the primary social unit and if it does, we have to ask if it is preferable to the one in which we were born with.

For me, Dunbar makes sense. There are only so many stories we can be invested in. I do not even desire that the stories be very many. After all I only have so much capacity to immerse myself in what Nin refers to as worlds. Get involved in too many stories and intimacy is soon lost and people become statistics even if I call them my friends.

I could say more, but I have to go check my email. I just got personal messages from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I know they must be important….they both started with “dear friend.”

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