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14 November, 2015

FRIENDS: AH YES, I'VE HAD A FEW...AND ON FACEBOOK TOO

FRIEND: noun. One who is personally well known by oneself and for whom one has warm regard or affection...Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary.

To me, a "true friend" is someone who has touched your heart and will stay there. Someone you care for, who cares for you. Someone you can do the stupidest things around and always be forgiven. Someone you'll instantly remember in 10 years because they are in your heart and not just your mind. They have the ability to change you, even if they don't. They will be etched in your memories forever.

Of course, we use the word "friend" very loosely in our society today. Dictionaries define it as "attached by affection and esteem". You can usually count those on one hand. "Acquaintance" is often a better description of a relationship, but it sounds awkward and cold. But Facebook has redefined the word to include people you worked with years ago but haven't spoken to since, people from high school that you weren't even friends with then, and someone to whom you gave your business card 12 minutes earlier. And of course, people you simply do not know.

Over the course of the eight or nine years that I have subscribed to the social media network "Facebook", I have accumulated a consistent average of 170 "friends" (give or take a couple of dozen or so who have either died or defriended me, or whom I have defriended for various reasons) which pales by comparison to some who have lists of friends numbering in the thousands. Because in all honesty, I can literally count on one hand the individuals on my list who meet the aforementioned "friend" criteria, I decided today to analyze my list of Facebook "friends".

But first, I had to overcome an inferiority complex resulting from the fact I had so few FB friends compared to others amassing far in excess of 500 (some as many as an almost unbelievable 3000). The Facebook obsession of collecting "friends" creates the impression that some users are wildly more sociable than others but in truth it is either an obsession or indicative of the fact that an individual is subtly marketing something -- a special interest, a product, themselves.

Oxford University Professor Robin Dunbar has conducted a study of social groupings throughout the centuries, from Neolithic villages to modern office environments. His findings assert that size of the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language, the neocortex, limits us to managing 150 fiends, no matter how sociable we are. Dunbar also applied his theory to determine if the "Facebook effect" has stretched the size of social groupings.

He compared the online traffic of people with thousands of friends to those with hundreds and found that there is no discernible difference between the two. "The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see that people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 individuals that we observe in the real world," he stated in defining "maintained" friends as those you care about and contact beyond Facebook at least once a year.

I cannot tell you how relieved I was to learn that I am not the social outcast that I had come to think I was. In fact, taking Professor Dunbar's theory into consideration, I probably have at least 25 more Facebook "friends" than my mind can comfortably manage. With that in mind, I set out to take a closer look at my list of FB "friends".

Off the top I have two daughters, one son-in-law, four adult grandchildren, four second cousins and two third cousins, a sister-in-law and a niece (a total of 15) who I consider to be more than just Facebook "friends". They are, after all, family/relatives. So remove them from the equation and I come pretty close to Dunbar's manageable limit of 150 Facebook "friends".

Interestingly, I have never officially met 55 of my so-called Facebook "friends" and have only met another dozen very casually or briefly on just one occasion. Some of those I invited to become Facebook "friends" because of mutual interests and, likewise, they me. Every single one a great person in their own right, but have they touched my heart?...Will they still remain friends down the road?...Would they be there for me if called upon, or vice versa? In a few special cases, I think that I can genuinely answer in the affirmative. In the majority of the cases however, probably not! So friends in a Facebook sense -- yes; but friends in real life -- no. I am sure the feeling is respectfully mutual.

Just as in real life where I am a relatively private person, I have never outwardly solicited Facebook friendships. Personally, I have been very selective in who I have welcomed to my inner-circle of Facebook "friends". Often to my detriment, I become too familiar with Facebook friends and begin talking to them like they are real friends, forgetting that they do not really know me nor do they understand my tell-it-like-it-is personality and strange sense of humour (a dangerous combination). I am not the easiest guy to get to know but I am always gratified when someone accepts my infrequent reaching out for friendship in real life or otherwise and in my mind a private bond is created that is difficult to explain.  That is just me.  I am either all in, or all out!

I am of the old school that considers a friend a friend, regardless. I want to hold on to them. I loose sleep over differences. I celebrate achievements. I grieve when I lose a friend in real life...and on Facebook too.

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