Strengthening the Strong Ties

Facebook birthdayI had a birthday last week. I didn’t turn a remarkable age or anything, although I am now officially older than Jesus. A few short years ago, turning 30-something might not have been a big deal—a special dinner and a gift or two, maybe. But now, birthdays are marked by friendly emails, texts, and tweets, and a wave of Facebook posts.

Most of the well-wishers just left a short note on my wall, something to let me know we’re still friends. It’s a simple gesture, but it’s fun to hear from old friends, even if it’s only a couple words. What’s most fun for me is hearing from all of them at once—high school friends, college roommates, mission companions, more recent co-workers. It’s a post-modern “This Is Your Life” day of happy memories, or a virtual group hug where I’m the only connection between everyone.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what a deathday might feel like too, once we’ve crossed over. Old friends and family popping by to say Hi, and promising to hang out later after I’ve settled in. Perhaps there’s a table of treats set up.

It’s a nice scene to imagine, all the disparate social circles from a lifetime of relationships coming together to welcome us home.

I suspect on that side, as on this side, many of those relationships will be weak ties, but as on this side, that doesn’t mean they can’t be meaningful. Dunbar’s Number suggests that humans have an upper limit to the number of social relationships we can maintain in a network (and Dunbar says we should blame the neo-cortex for that). It is lower than we might suppose—around 150. But even so, beyond that 150 are a large group of people that I care about and hope to have more time with, and I’m confident I will at some point along an eternal continuum. (I’ve written about this before, here.)

Dunbar’s Number bums me out, and it may be a real limit if we’re talking about the kinds of real-life social networks that require maintenance…regular, meaningful contact, letters, etc. The biggest feature and biggest danger of virtual social networks like Facebook is they don’t require the same level of maintenance for something resembling a friendship. This allows us to “keep up with” huge swaths of weak ties, though it might endanger the strong ties of family and close friends. Those traditional kinds of friendships just don’t “scale.”

Because of that, I’d been thinking about quitting Facebook for a while, just to see how life would be different. A couple other BCC permas said they were giving it up for Lent, and I (rashly) agreed to join them.

I say “rashly” because I agreed to it before looking up the dates, and this year, Lent started on February 13th. The day after my birthday. I spent Tuesday swimming in wall posts, and on Wednesday I basically went dark for 6 weeks.
It’s only been a few days so far, just long enough for the hives and the uncontrollable shaking to subside. But one thing I’ve noticed is I don’t have more time in my day. Those minutes “wasted” online aren’t being put to a better use, at least not yet, and so my goal is to be proactive about setting aside time for people—to shore up my dwindling network of strong ties and let those people know they are important to me. I might even write a letter by hand!

So that’s what I’ll be doing through the end of March. If you really need me, you can still reach me on Twitter and Google+ (I’m not crazy).


  1. “But one thing I’ve noticed is I don’t have more time in my day.”

    That’s an interesting observation. I know that for myself, facebook is just a drop in the bucket for how I can while away shocking amounts of time online (I type as I surf the Bloggernacle). So to achieve what I see as the intent behind a facebook fast–spending less time on the comptuer–I would have to ban a lot more than just facebook.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Kyle. I may have some own to add as a counterpoint to your post, but I think we’re delusional to view social media as an unalloyed good.

  3. I don’t know if I’m ready to belief Dunbar. The number seems far too low and I know people who are exceeding that number daily. It also depends on the kind of relationship that they’re talking about. As for giving up Facebook for Lent… I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t is more like it.

  4. Over the last few days of fb-avoidance I have noticed an increase in productivity but that was never the primary reason for my choice to abstain. Rather, fb seems to cultivate certain parts of my personality that I am not overly proud of and so this time is an attempt to reassess those flaws. However, if my circumstances were different, then perhaps this facebook fast might have allowed me to pursue this type ‘strengthening’ of approach. In fact, being less self-absorbed about the purpose of the fast might have been a good start.

  5. I love this post. You’ve articulated what most of my friends and I feel. I will say that Facebook Birthdays are THE BEST THING on the interwebs. . . I don’t care how weak those ties are. And, ironically, those distant friends who knew me long before I had any permanent teeth and still love me even though we haven’t seen each other in decades – are in some ways quite important to me because of our significant shared (albeit remote) history.

    However, I dp think Dunbar is on to something.

    “This allows us to “keep up with” huge swaths of weak ties, though it might endanger the strong ties of family and close friends. Those traditional kinds of friendships just don’t “scale.” ” Yep.

  6. I would argue strongly for the benefit and blessing of social media as well–a very good friend lost her husband to infection suddenly and we were able to get tube information out to a lot of people quickly. I believe that the ongoing love and support she has received to suddenly parent alone has been easier, etc. So there are distinct blessings.

  7. I agree, stargazer and melodynew (and what a poetic pair of pseudonyms!). I do hold out hope that all weak ties will be made strong someday. There are way too many intriguing people who our weak ties in my life only because I haven’t had time to really get to know them.

    And, of course, the ultimate refutation of Dunbar’s Number in the next life is God himself. Will that be a weak tie or a strong tie?

  8. Interesting that you find b-days to be the high point of Facebook. I know it’s idiosyncratic, but I’ve kept my own birthdate off Facebook and try not to comment on others.

  9. Why won’t you let people love you, Ben? Why?

  10. Lamplighter says:

    I “waste” far more time on BCC and other blogs than I do on FB. Or staring out the window at the turkeys waiting for the page to load.