An Unmanageable Circle of Friends

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

Jason Calacanis wishes he could be your Facebook friend, but he just can't. The Internet entrepreneur loves networking; the New Yorker magazine once wrote a profile of him called "The Connector." When people want to get from point A to point B, he's A and a half. But Calacanis now has several thousand friends, with more requests streaming in daily. He's tired. So on his blog this summer, Calacanis, 37, declared a Facebook moratorium. In the future he'll outsource his friend management to an intern.

While Calacanis may have burned out early, he predicts he won't be alone: "Everyone's going to face a level of this, too."

And then . . . chaos? Isolation? Abject misery? When we reach that point where a utility that is supposed to bring us closer to our friends actually makes us hate our friends -- and the death grip that managing them has on our time -- where will we go from there?

"Everyone senses that social networking is really important," says Duncan J. Watts, a Columbia University sociology professor and author of "Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age." "But the big question has been: How do you convert networking into a Web site? So far it's been done in an ad-hoc, slapdash sort of way."

The problem, according to Watts?

Despite Newsweek's assertion last week that Facebook "has already changed the way millions of us connect," Watts says sites like it are failing us because they do not do the thing that social networks are designed to do, namely: network. His websessed students spend their Facebook time keeping up with the infinitesimal details of their acquaintances' lives through the egomaniacally titled News Feeds. Call it stalking, procrastinating or friend collecting, it doesn't build real connections.

A history lesson:

"Social network" is not a Facebook term or even -- remember these? -- a Friendster or Xanga one. Sociologist J.A. Barnes coined the phrase in 1954 to explain the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend connections that cut across traditional groupings of family or ethnic groups. These pathways have historically been the way people get jobs, find apartments, meet spouses and generally navigate the world. They are studied by the 1,200 members of International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA), who presumably all have great jobs and fabulous apartments. (Craigslist, of course, has taken over some of the traditional network's roles, though not all.)

The bigger problem with Facebook et al., says Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto sociologist and founder of INSNA, is that current sites "assume that everyone in your life is on one happy network." On MySpace, your work colleagues are given the same info as your Halo buddies. That's not how life works, and pretending it does dilutes the meaning of our more powerful connections.

Part of the problem is a numbers game. Oft-cited anthropological research puts the maximum effective group size at 150, known as the Dunbar number. Some groups -- religious congregations, book clubs -- splinter off when their numbers get too high for members to bond. Facebook does not. Facebook allows its users to spread their time and energy, like butter covering an increasingly larger piece of friend-network toast. Do you want a lot of toast? Or do you want a lot of butter on normal-size bread?

Ogheneruemu "O.G." Oyiborhoro wants the toast. He is the George Washington University junior who holds the school's title of most Facebook friends -- 3,456 and counting. He collects them at parties, in classes, in the library. He thinks the face recognition probably helped out when he ran for and won a student government position last year.

But if Oyiborhoro needed to find a new apartment, whom would he ask for help? He thinks for a minute. "That's a good question."

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