A couple of weeks ago I talked about a piece of informal research I’d conducted with teenagers about their use of Facebook and wondered aloud how their average of 400 ‘friends’ correlated with Dunbar’s number of meaningful relationships? Could those many hundreds of connections translate into a genuine social circle?
Likewise, Twitter’s ability to broadcast minutiae to the world amplifies our ability to share intimate moments with friends and strangers alike. Does it make everyone a friend? Conversation with David Squire highlighted the illusion of intimacy that these insights present: it feels like we know the person tweeting. But of course the relationship is entirely unequal – celebrities, real or virtual know nothing of us – any conversation will be one-sided at best and embarrassingly superficial at worst.
Charismatic individuals have always flourished. That ability to make people feel important is a priceless gift. Even if not telegenic, I remember one friend telling me how utterly beguiling was John Major, the ex-Prime Minister. Clinton, Obama and Cameron are charmers too. It’s rare that politicians become leaders without an ability to woo (although perhaps Gordon Brown took Machiavelli’s advice that fear was a more consistent instrument for maintaining power). And politics isn’t the only business where personality is the dominant factor in success, showbiz and finance depend as much on an ability to ingratiate as any particular vocational skill. But does the social media industry cynically trade on friendship too?
It is easy to be sceptical. Chris Brogan (146000+ Twitter followers, 4500+ Facebook friends) shared some thoughts about the potential for a social crash in his blog recently. He warns us of a need to be content with ‘ambient connectivity.’ So is that merely an excuse to justify professional acquaintances and maintain the veneer of sincerity? I don’t think so for Chris but then Chris is an exceptional human being.
Just as I was losing faith in anyone’s ability to sustain that many relationships, Chris sent a note to me based on the fleeting moment we met. Given the number of people he meets on a weekly basis, that refreshed contact felt astonishing. But then you don’t forge a career like Chris’s without being extraordinary.
I wonder about us mere mortals though. And the prospects for depth rather than breadth of relationships in everyday social life. Perhaps the two positions are not exclusive. Wily celebrities will always exploit new technologies to endear themselves to a wider audience and I suspect we will always be willing participants in the delusion of a “relationship” but I see no evidence in the mainstream of people expanding their connections online at the expense of intimacy with their real-world friends. More likely, social media enables us to enrich our real friendships with ubiquitous access to their lives and simultaneously increases the penumbra of our personal society by exposing us to people who might otherwise pass us by.