18 November 2010

We Are Family

So this week saw the release of Path, a social network for fifty of your closest friends. Instead of trying to befriend everyone you know, Path is for personal connections, where exclusivity is king. They arrived at fifty by using Dunbar's Number, which is "a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships." I learned about this awhile ago, pre-Friendster, and always wondered how having huge Internet social networks conflate with that theory. I hope I used "conflate" correctly as I just learned about this word and it seems handy. I urge you to read more about Dunbar's Number because it involves primates and grooming and gossip, all things people should be heavily invested in.

When I turned thirty, I tried to lead my fellow soon to be thirty-ites in a series of spreadsheet games that would allows us to reflect on and evaluate our past couple of decades. One of the things I made us do was a Dirty Thirty list, which was a list of the top twenty nine people closest to us, discounting family -- you get to add a new person each birthday. The point of the exercise was to identify the people we value and then to make sure we were making moves to progress or hold on to those friendships. As a follow up task, we'd send "thank you" or "thinking of you" notes to them for being such great friends.

Actually the point of the list was really for curiosity's sake, but I'm sure there were higher purposes around somewhere. By the way, I'd like to take a look at everyone's Dirty Thirty list, preferably soon after we befriend each other, as I'd like to know who my competition is.

I don't think Path has much of a future, as intriguing an idea as it is, because so far it's just photo sharing. As reviewers have pointed out, there's nothing that Path offers that Facebook can't with a few privacy settings tweaks. Path's website and iPhone app are very elegantly presented though, so I wish them the best.

I tend to read a lot of things about social networking and the effect of the Internet on our social lives. Zadie Smith wrote a wonderful article about Sorkin's movie the other week, and one of her observations was how Facebook's decreasing privacy protection has now flattened everyone out, making people a bland amalgam of safe updates, not too drunk photos, and censored individuality. While Facebook has filled the "I know what they're up to" niche quite nicely, the better question then becomes "who cares?"

My friend Raymond and a few of his friends are participating in a one month Facebook fast. They're quite a bit younger than me so for them Facebook is almost literal food. They've started a blog about it, The Social Notwork, and so far it reads like an addict's recovery diary, with the emotional spectrum going from anger, to wistfulness, to regret. I'm kind of hoping they fast for longer than a month, just to see what happens. Being unplugged from Facebook on a college campus must be torture.

While I'm here, let me share this post from Tweetage Wasteland with you. It's about how Facebook has ruined his birthday skills. I had the exact same sentiment and would have created a post about this topic except Dave Pell is an Internet superhero and cyber-telepathically captured my thoughts perfectly. For years and years I had a running list of people's birthdays, set on a special page on my website, which I'd update with precise regularity. On someone's big day I'd make it a point to call/email/text, even if we never talked otherwise. Now that Facebook makes it overly easy to recall someone's birthday, I've decided to boycott all birthdays. I know it makes me sound like a bitter child, but I'm okay with that.

Until I can figure out a new way to show my appreciation for someone's existence, I just can't bring myself to wish them happy birthday anymore as "remembering" is no longer really that special. I had been substituting contacting people on their wedding anniversaries this year, which has won me some karma points, but that hardly works for my non-married friends. I've thought about combining anniversaries and kids' birthdays but again, how do I show my other friends that I care?

Oh yeah, yesterday it was National Unfriend Day, as championed by Jimmy Kimmel. Defriend someone and see how it feels. Defriend me and I'll come looking for you. And not in that good way. Someone clever could probably come up with something witty about the one letter difference between "befriend" and "defriend." Not it.