What is “friendship” anyway?

I’ve had a couple of interesting experiences on Facebook recently. More than anything else, the definition of “friend” is what has come to be controversial.

I tend to perceive my Facebook friends in one of four ways, and I’ll argue that most people will agree with me.

(1) Colleagues, old schoolmates, and business acquaintances that you feel obligated in some way to keep in touch with, who sometimes are overly familiar, but who can often provide useful connections or introductions around the country and in different industries and workplaces.
(2) Family that you SHOULD keep in touch with for the purposes of weddings, family reunions, and other personal obligations.
(3) Real friends—these are the people you actually talk to, invite to birthday parties, and care about their lives and relationships. If you separate out your friends into groups, then this is the one you actually read status updates from.
(4) Acquaintances, celebrities,
local news sources, and people who are of use in some fashion. These are often the people who inform you of local events, gallery openings, concerts, big parties, artisans, and interesting news.

People in most social networks tend to have to utilize heuristics to deal with the constant flow of information. As for me, I am fine receiving 85-90% of relevant local news and events in order to not have to pay total attention to my Facebook/Twitter newsfeeds. Frankly, most of my friends are on Facebook, not on Twitter. As a result, I don’t tend to have conversations so much as I get soundbytes of information.

I only really track 50-60 of my friends, even though I have close to 300 people that I am connected to on social networks.

This conversation came up because sometimes there is asynchronicity in friend pairings. For instance, a Facebook friend of mine http://buysoma.net made it a habit to invite me to her dance club’s events each week. When she asked her substantial Facebook friend list why she
never received any responses or RSVPs, I was the only person, I think, who was interested in the question and as a result gave her a genuine and well-thought-out response.

I told her that since she had 1000 Facebook friends, and I could see that she used her friends list as a sort of marketing tool, that I felt no real obligation to respond to invitations I perceived to be little more than a requirement of her job, and not part of her relationship with me. I think she was genuinely hurt by the fact that people had failed to respond to her invitations, but I believe that no one really thinks that someone who has invited 700 people to an event really cares whether or not one person shows up. No matter how much my friend protested that she personally selected the people she sent invitations to, I don’t really believe her, and I don’t think anyone else does either. It is impossible to maintain meaningful personal relationships with more than perhaps 100 people—and it’s stretching rather a lot for me
to even try to do so with 30 or 40 people.

The truth is that the Internet is nothing more than a communication tool. Humans have never been capable of maintaining rational, close relationships with more than a clan-sized group of people; it’s how we evolved. It doesn’t matter if you’re webcamming or IMing or calling or coffee-klatsching—people make connections with only a limited amount of people. That connection list changes over time, but its existence, relevance to today’s social media, and importance, does not.