Technology now provides a level of connection that was unheard of just a scant twenty years ago. The cell phone, the Internet and the marriage of the two in smart phones (BlackBerry, iPhone etc.) have rapidly increased our ability to stay in touch. But who are we staying in touch with exactly? Do we have the time for all these people, and do we short-change family in the process?
Friend Is a Four Letter Word
Automated report emails from work, status updates from Facebook friends you never really talk to and follower notifications that often wind up being spam consistently interrupt your weekend like a toddler tugging at the edge of your shirt.
Don't get me wrong, there are times when getting an important email while you're on the go can make a real difference. But most of the time it could have waited until the next day, never mind another hour.
More and more we're getting messages from online friends: Facebook updates, Twitter followers and FriendFeed subscribers. I get a lot out of my social network, which is nearly all on FriendFeed. There are a slew of people I now count as friends through my FriendFeed experience.
Yet, should I be using my time to chat with them when I could be spending more time with my family, or visiting with friends? To be clear, I'm not saying I'm quitting FriendFeed (far from it!) I'm simply working through how to best use my time in relation to all the 'friendships' new technology has enabled.
Technology allows us to keep in touch with more people. But should we? Are these quality interactions? Voyeurism friendships (or those people with whom you're connected via a social network but rarely interact with online and never speak or meet with offline) take up time, energy and emotion that might be better spent elsewhere.
The First Social Network
And it's not just about the time devoted to these voyeurism friendships. Technology makes it possible to disrupt real friendships with these voyeuristic updates. Even worse, they might make you inattentive to your first social network: family.
The Annenberg Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California is reporting this week that 28 percent of Americans it interviewed last year said they have been spending less time with members of their households. That's nearly triple the 11 percent who said that in 2006.
Each Saturday morning I take my four year old daughter to dance class. Parents stand outside and watch through a massive window. I bring my BlackBerry with me, but I am very rarely on it and try not to use it at all.
Instead I want to watch my daughter, react to her wave, thumbs up, wink or smile. I want to be present! Because all too often there's a parent there, head down, tapping away on an iPhone or BlackBerry, oblivious to what's going on with their child.
I wonder how many children are competing for time and attention with the tiny people living in that smart phone. I can't believe it feels very good.
How do these voyeurism friends stack up against other friends or family? I'm a firm believer in Dunbar's number - the maximum number of healthy social relationships a person can maintain at any one time. Dunbar's number is approximately 150. The question is, do these voyeurism friends count against this number?
I'm beginning to suspect they do.
You might not think they do, but they're taking up social and emotional space. You are inserting a random piece of information about a person into your memory. A person who you went to high school with - not really a friend then or now - just got back from a trip to New Orleans. You can't turn that information off. It's been received and transmitted to your brain, mixed up with other random facts like song lyrics or television commercials from your childhood.
Whether you like it or not your brain is processing this stuff. You can begin to think about why Dunbar's number makes sense in this context. As your brain is trying to sort, track and shelve data on more and more people it becomes far more difficult to maintain. You can't crack the case and stick in more RAM.
At some point, you're only storing a very small amount of data on a slew of people, which makes those relationships tenuous as best. The issue here is that you're threatening the strength of all your relationships as you expand your reach. You might try to store more about 'good' friends and family, but I'm not sure we're wired that way.
There's a reason why you lose touch with friends. They aren't really friends (anymore) and you don't want to clutter your head with irrelevant data. You outgrow friends. Recent research suggests that you replace half of your friends every 7 years.
I question whether technology is inhibiting the natural shedding of friends necessary for us to move on, to establish new friends and evolve as a person.
The Future of Friends
I'm writing about this, in part, because I don't know the answer and am struggling with the topic. I'm on FriendFeed constantly, sometimes when I could (perhaps should) be spending time with my wife and daughter.
I've taken steps to address this disconnect. I attended the FriendFeed open house so I could actually meet some of the people to whom I've been chatting - something that goes against my natural introverted nature.
And I've walked away from the computer - completely - to spend more time with family. We walked the Golden Gate Bridge together and explored the California Academy of Sciences.
Time and attention are in short supply in our accelerated society. Sometimes you need to remind yourself about what's really important.