Strange bedfellows

Some people find it odd that I am able to count the number of my friends on one hand; not the totality of people I know, to be clear: I was a doctor before I retired -I know a lot of people. And yet the number I could phone or visit if I needed some advice, or just to talk, is a one-hander. Just because I was hoodwinked into ‘friending’ some names I barely recognize on Facebook because they’re friends of friends (none of whom are actually friends of my friends) does not mean I want anything to do with them.

So, where does that leave me? With strange bedfellows like the one the jester Trinculo found  in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He had been shipwrecked on an island in a storm, and the only shelter he could find was under the cape of Caliban, a local inhabitant he obviously did not know. Facebook is also a sort of cape, I suppose -a place where one can find shelter, pretend relationships however tenuous in case there is need -or in case anyone asks… Sort of like the hockey cards I used to collect and flaunt as a child –I recognized the players’ names but little else; the game I played was only about who had the most cards. Nothing more.

Perhaps, therefore, I should have heard of ‘Dunbar’s number’. I blush to admit that I first heard about it in an article by Christine Ro, a freelance writer for BBC Future, and the International Institute for Environment and Development.

It would seem that ‘There are well-defined limits to the number of friends and acquaintances the average person can retain. But the question about whether these limits are the same in today’s digital world – one in which it’s common to have social media profiles, or online forums, with thousands of followers – is more complicated. According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the “magic number” is 150… Dunbar concluded that the size, relative to the body, of the neocortex – the part of the brain associated with cognition and language – is linked to the size of a cohesive social group. This ratio limits how much complexity a social system can handle.’

If the truth be known, I suspect that 150 is well beyond either my capability to remember, or the size of my Facebook list. I fear I have let down my species -or maybe I just wasn’t allotted a social brain. But of course, there are other numbers nested within the social brain hypothesis: just 5 for loved ones. Okay, fine. ‘That’s followed by successive layers of 15 (good friends), 50 (friends), 150 (meaningful contacts), 500 (acquaintances) and 1500 (people you can recognise).’ Whoaa! Wait a minute -they’re all multiples of five, like fingers on a hand. Uhmm…

Well, I think others have noticed the finger-counting coincidence as well, and dispute Dunbar’s number (or perhaps the number of his fingers?). Too simplistic , they argue. ‘Research that supports it is skewed towards Weird (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) societies.’ And anyway, different primates’ brain sizes are influenced by other aspects besides social complexity.

But it seems to me that with social media, maybe different rules apply. Is it really more like collecting hockey cards? Well, not to be outdone by mere digital technology, ‘Thus far, the research of Dunbar and colleagues on online relationships suggests that these are similar to offline relationships in terms of numerical restrictions… When people have more than 150 friends on Facebook or 150 followers on Twitter, Dunbar argues, these represent the normal outer layers of contacts (or the low-stakes connections): the 500 and 1500. For most people, intimacy may just not be possible beyond 150 connections.’ Phew!

Interestingly, ‘He [Dunbar] compares anonymous internet interactions to the use of confessionals in the Catholic church. It isn’t a close relationship, but it is one that recognises the benefits of confidentiality among quasi-strangers… In this view, the non-physical, non-real-time nature of internet relationships means that they can’t challenge “real-world” ones in meaningful ways.’ However, he concedes that ‘the primacy of physical contact in the social brain hypothesis may apply less to young people who have never known life without the internet, for whom digital relationships may be just as meaningful as analogue ones.’

I console myself that, except for my children, I have little, if any, contact with Gen X, let alone Millennials, or the Gen Zies –in fact, even if threatened, I have no idea what those words mean.

Maybe that’s why my list is so low. A Facebook ‘friend’ recently accosted me in a supermarket downtown and asked me if I agreed with her. Of course I didn’t know what she was talking about. We were both wearing masks, so I wondered if her words had been filtered out along with the virus we were both trying to avoid. Actually, I didn’t recognize her; either she had changed her hair colour since I had accepted her picture as ‘my friend’, or the photo was purposely out of date. And, of course, the mask -it’s not called that for nothing, I suppose. Hers was a huge, black thing  that seemed to be more of a blanket thrown over her face, with a big red heart sewn on the front of it where her mouth should have been.

When I didn’t reply to her repeated question, she sensed her anonymity and paused for a moment as if she, too, may have mistaken me for someone else. Then I could see clarity harden in her eyes. No, I was G for sure; my photo on her phone was up to date.

“It’s Martha…” she started, this time somewhat hesitantly. I suppose she assumed no one could possibly mistake her for anyone else. “…Janice’s friend…”

I racked my brain to remember who Janice was, and smiled in embarrassed defeat. In fairness, I know it’s hard to differentiate a smile from a full-blown grin behind a mask unless there are the little wrinkles around the eyes . Mine was only token politesse.

She seemed upset that I still didn’t remember. “I posted that picture of the homeless man yelling at a woman on the sidewalk with the bag of groceries… Remember that one?” She stared at me for a moment, her eyes like my grade school teacher’s when she caught me writing notes to the girl in the seat beside me. “Do you think he should have been upset at the woman…?”

I shrugged. I hadn’t seen the picture so I didn’t know why it was so offensive to her. I made a stab at an answer. “Was he upset because she had food and he didn’t?”

“Didn’t you read my comment, G?” She shook her head, clearly disappointed that I didn’t seem to agree with her opinion.

I suppose I shouldn’t have shrugged at that moment -it outraged her, I could tell. What little forehead skin that showed above her mask had suddenly become very wrinkly, and her eyes were opening and closing rapidly.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean…” But she was gone. She’d turned on her heels and click-clacked away on the tile floor.

I still don’t actually know who she was. And I can’t remember Janice either, for that matter. Maybe I shouldn’t ‘Unfollow’ so many people after I have collected them on Facebook. People are going to wonder if I still have the cards I traded for…


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