How many Facebook friends does a man need?

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As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’ve been obsessed lately with the social networking site Facebook. This obsession was mainly in the service of journalism, and now that I’ve written my Time column on the subject I probably ought to move on. But now I’m being faced with the fundamental question that eventually confronts every user of a social networking site: What are “friends,” anyway?

Up to now, almost all of my Facebook friends have been actual friends, or at least people with whom I’ve had previous interactions and toward whom I’m favorably disposed. There were also a couple of aggressive Silicon Valley networkers that I was pretty sure I had never met, but they knew a lot of people I knew and seemed like okay enough folks.

Since my column went up online, though, I’ve begun to get friend requests from people with whom I have no connection at all. These aren’t spammers like you get on MySpace–I signed up there a couple of weeks ago for research purposes and so far all my friend requests have come from people who as best I can tell are not in fact people. On Facebook, I’m hearing from what appear to be real, live readers of Time or who saw what I had written and decided to befriend me. It’s mostly college students, although I also just got an out-of-the-blue friend request from NPR’s Carl Kasell (his page appears to be maintained by somebody on staff at Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!).

I don’t want to exaggerate my popularity here. I’ve only got 13 friend requests pending at the moment. I’m no Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC technology correspondent whose lament that he didn’t have very many Facebook friends resulted in 700 friend requests in four days and the creation of a Facebook group called “Befriend Rory Cellan-Jones”Rory Cellan-Jones.) I’m not even Howie Kurtz or Emily Yoffe, whose similar if less plaintive accounts of searching for Facebook friends generated outpourings of Facebookly love. My column wasn’t really about finding friends at all; it was about whether Facebook could be a useful tool for grownups.

Metcalfe’s Law holds that the value of a network is equal to number of connections in the network, squared. By that reasoning, with every new friend I add to my Facebook social network it becomes exponentially more valuable. But it’s obvious that this isn’t the case. Even Bob Metcalfe says it isn’t. Last year, in response to a much-discussed article that claimed that his formula overstated the value of adding members to a network, he wrote:

While they’re at it, my law’s critics should look at whether the value of a network actually starts going down after some size. Who hasn’t received way too much email or way too many hits from a Google search? There may be diseconomies of network scale that eventually drive values down with increasing size. So, if V=A*N^2, it could be that A (for “affinity,” value per connection) is also a function of N and heads down after some network size, overwhelming N^2. Somebody should look at that and take another crack at my poor old law.

If I add too many Facebook friends with whom I share little affinity–or just too many friends, period–Facebook’s value to me will then decrease. Or something like that. I may become less interested in the information that comes across my News Feed; I may be less willing to put things of a remotely personal nature on my page. On the other hand, I’m already exhibitionist enough to maintain two blogs (the other, which lately has been mainly about cooking weird fish, is here), I have a book coming out next year that I’m going to want to promote, and I’m generally not opposed to making new friends.

So unless I hit the big-time like Rory Cellan-Jones, I just don’t see how I can justify rejecting these friend requests. Facebook allows me to create two classes of friends, and share less information with one group than the other. This seems kinda rude, but it happens in real life all the time. So I may avail myself of that feature. I may also insist on trading messages with strangers before befriending them. But I’m wondering if this might just be the first step down a slippery slope that will eventually render Facebook totally useless to me. Not that it’s all that useful now, but it is a cool way of keeping up with the doings of a few of my friends. Now I’ll also be keeping up with the doings of my “friends,” and I’m not sure I (or they) have the time for that.

Update: Ana Marie has been thinking deep thoughts about Facebook as well, as well as talking about them on the teevee. She writes:

I know that, at the moment, my requests to “friend” the marginally famous-for-DC will likely get through simply because, well, there’s still not that many people on Facebook. But at what point does Facebook become a life-sized map of the world, as useless for organizing or networking as standing in the middle of the mall and shouting?

Update 2: The inevitable Danah Boyd has an interesting historical (and of course “ethnographic”) perspective on the meaning of “friending.” (Thanks to Swampland commenter JJ for the link.)