An Unmanageable Circle of Friends
Social-Network Web Sites Inundate Us With Connections, and That Can Be Alienating

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."

Not the 3,456, though. "The furthest I'd go with Facebook would be to ask someone to borrow a textbook. I'd want to actually trust the person" for a bigger request. To use a social networking site for actual social networking would be an impertinence. An imposition. A sign -- even a relatively small one -- of vulnerable humanity instead of the casual snarkiness popular on the site's Walls (so named because messages are posted there, but isn't there a sociologist somewhere dissecting the isolation that the name implies?). It would be like actually playing with collectible Luke and Leia dolls instead of lining them up and occasionally vacuuming off their dusty plastic boxes.

It's so1996 to worry about the Internet secluding people from one another (and yeah, some people have found love -- and even apartments -- on Facebook). But the fact that the current popular spaces for social networking come up short means that someone is going to have to find a way for everyone to be real friends again.

One industry response to the issue so far has come in the form of . . . more social networking sites. On Aug. 6, online address book Plaxo introduced Pulse, its solution to the walled garden syndrome (i.e., if you wants to see a pal's Facebook entry, you too must belong to Facebook; to gawk at his Flickr photos, you too must Flick). Pulse users can stream everything from Amazon wish lists to del.icio.us Web markers directly into Pulse accounts. To Wellman's point, they can also separate which groups of people receive which types of information.

Another futurist prediction involves vertical social networking -- think really juiced-up message boards -- in which users meet via genuine common interests rather than simply mass friend-collect.

But that type of "let's nerd out by meeting others on the Thomas Kinkade social network" experience has its own pitfalls. Maybe Thomas Kinkade fans and dog lovers and Beautiful People -- who can join a network where admission is based on looks -- should be forced to occasionally disconnect from each other and meet dog-hating ugly people, just like IRL.

That's how real social networks have prevented us from getting too myopic, from living in apartment buildings where the only permissible artwork is . . . Thomas Kinkade, painter of light.

In some ways, we're dragged back to that Internet-causes-isolation theory again by the very sites that were designed to prove that it didn't. If hours in the day are limited, and we're spending more of them on social networking sites, then are we ultimately losing either breadth or depth in the way we interact with other people?

Or are we just rethinking what it means to be connected, accepting that we'll trade Facebook pokes with 3,456 people but then find our apartments on Craigslist?

Until someone figures all of this out, and discovers how to prevent social networking sites from becoming the death of social networking, what does Jason Calacanis, that exhausted networking guru, plan to do? For starters, this: "If you really want to get in touch with me, give me a call."

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