Hermits and recluses aside, few of us deny that friendship is a rewarding, if not the most rewarding, aspect of Second Life. Yet, we often don’t talk about how to choose our friends wisely, or how to be a true friend.
Oxford defines a friend as “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.”
Hmm, “mutual affection”, isn’t that a tad… wide?
If that definition wasn’t inclusive enough, we now take part in the digital debasement of the term friend. Today we friend (new & improved in active verb format!) pretty much anybody we meet, effectively labelling them as a friend, or just somebody that happens to be on my list of contacts on a social networking site.
Which brings us neatly back to Second Life.
150 friends? Really?
Dunbar’s number is the suggested cognitive limit to the number of people (most commonly agreed to be 150) with whom one can keep up stable social relationships. The means that an individual can reasonably know each person, and how each person relates to every other person, in a group of 150 or less. Beyond 150, anonymity surfaces, and so do the lack of responsibilities and obligations we may feel to those who barely know us. One might argue this is one of the reasons we have things like antisocial behaviour. Tribes, during hunter gatherer times, rarely surpassed this number and kept things pretty cool because everyone knew what everyone else was up to.
A few months ago, I saw my friends list surpass Dunbar’s number, and today, I brought the number down to a more manageable size (sorry contacts who I haven’t spoken to in… months). Dunbar’s number aside, after making a contact set (thank you Firestorm!) the number of people in Second Life that I would comfortably fit within Oxford’s rather over-inclusive definition is closer to 15.
But there’s more, isn’t there? These are my friends… but are they my true blue friends? Errr.. no.
We all have our personal definitions of what makes a true blue friend. Some say that a true blue friend is someone who you’d drop everything for to come to their aid. I’ve read a true blue friend is someone who you can feel comfortable confiding what you most fear, or doubt, or hate about yourself. Some consider time and absence as an acid test: a true blue friend might be someone you’ve not talked with in decades, but time and distance do nothing to diminish the bond between you.
One definition I particularly like is the notion that a true blue friend is someone who brings forth the very best in you. This is a person in front of whom you can feel free to be yourself. A true blue friend is someone that really knows you, and accepts you – every part of you – the good stuff, and the stuff you hold back, from all but your true blue friends. These friends will stick with you even at your ultimate worst, and agree with Emerson when he wrote that “it is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them”.
Your own private social solar system
Some of us might see our friends orbiting us in near concentric circles – like the planets orbiting our Sun. Mercury’s unique mysteriousness gets the majority of our attention (often correlated with their superior taste in footwear), whilst stable and reliable Venus is never far from our hearts and minds. Earth is our complicated friend, whom we may worry about, and probably for good reason. Mars is somewhat more distant, and a little bit erratic, but still important to us and at times even somewhat inspirational, and therefore most definitely deserves a space within our inner circle.
Then there’s the asteroid belt composed of our other friends with whom we may share distant history, but probably not very much time. This motley crew of craggy rocks flies in and out of our inner circle, and some of them, like wayward meteorites, drop in unannounced like great balls of fire.
Further afield are our acquaintances: Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus, and their extended families of moons. These gassy giants are familiar to us, but we don’t really know them all that well. Yet, they loom large in our view so that we won’t easily forget them.
And finally we have poor old Pluto, a distant friend we might see so infrequently that we once even stopped considering them a friend at all, only to have his loveable self again resurface back into our lives, as distant friends are want to do.
Whilst stretched in too many ways to mention, this analogy might hold a grain of truth at least when it comes to our inner circle (of friends, not planets). Dunbar himself said that usually, our inner circle consists of five “core” people (your true blue friends) and an extra layer of 10. That makes 15 people – some will probably be family members – who are your central group and then outside that, there’s another 35 in the next circle and another 100 on the outside. And that’s one person’s social solar system.
Now if we can only convince the people who make viewers that this might be a good way to organise our “Friends lists”…
The long odds of finding true blue friends
Finding true blue friends isn’t easy. But why is that? With 7 billion other humans out there, why is true blue friendship so hard to find? Where is everybody? Does it ever feel like finding true blue friends feels as optimistic as the search for alien life? What are the odds, really?
Working through a probability equation suggests that there might be 1742 people in the entire city of New York (population: 8,244,910) that might qualify as true blue friends. Or roughly 1/5000. This number is derived from an adaptation of Drake’s equation (initially formulated to calculate the probability of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life by an astronomer named Drake):
N = Np (your target population) * fg (your target gender) * Fs (the no. of singles in the population) * fe (the no. that are findable) * fy (your target age range) * fl(a common language) * fa (finding someone attractive) * fa2 (someone finding you attractive) * fi (similar level of education)
Let me just repeat that for a moment… the chances of finding a true blue friend in a city like New York is One.In.Five.Thousand.
And that’s if you live in a humongous city like New York City! The odds get considerably longer the smaller the city you live in and damned is the lonely soul who lives in a tiny village – although something tells me they have no trouble finding friends at all, but that’s a whole other post!
They odds get even longer the less people you meet, the bigger your prejudices, the less open you are (making others less attractive to you), and the less you love yourself (making yourself less attractive to others). And that’s just someone who is reasonably compatible! If you then consider all the other obstacles, walls, mind games, rules and preferences we erect, the lower the number… the longer the odds.
Are you depressed yet? Fear not, I have a plan!
How to choose friends wisely
First, sort quickly. Consider the number of people you might meet in a year. If you’re hoping to find a true blue friend, you simply can’t afford to spend much time alone, remote, or with people who you don’t value. You have to be open to strangers who might one day become friends. You can’t be all things to all people. You need to hire slowly but fire quickly. Some people are the nutrients in our lives, while others are merely empty calories. Choose, and eat accordingly. Don’t be afraid to distance yourself from those that might not become a real friend. The good can sometimes be the enemy of the great. Remember, this isn’t so much a scarcity problem (there are still 1742 people out there just waiting to be found!), it’s a sorting problem.
Second, hang on to the true blue friends you have. Most people can count their true blue friends on their fingertips, with many left over – and that’s over their entire lives. Has your friend let you down? Did they mess up? Does their apparent commitment, or their available time, ebb and flow like the tides? Who cares? Let it go. It’s not the ingredients in your life that matter, it’s what you choose to cook in your dinner. Get some perspective and think very, very, very hard before you dismiss a true blue friend from your life. Consider this: the odds of finding a true blue friend are half as good as the odds of a golf tour professional landing a hole-in-one (2500 to 1).
Three, be a true blue friend yourself. Be the friend you want to have. The other day I overheard a discussion between people about what they wanted to get from a relationship. I want X, one said. I want Y, said another. If I don’t get Z, then it’s goodbye! If they mess up, then there’s the door… have a nice life!
What’s all this about what you want to get? How self-centred can you be? As much as your true blue friends might think the sun literally shines out of your ass, you are not really the Sun! Besides, the Sun has given a hell of a lot more than the planets ever gave it back, and that’s not changing anytime soon. Think instead: what are you ready to give? How can you enrich their lives? How can you be their sunlight? And to really turn the cosmic tables, how can you be the planet orbiting their sun, as much as you’d like them to orbit yours?
But isn’t that one-sided? What if you’re taken advantage of? What if they don’t appreciate it? Again, drop that stuff. Trust me, it’s useless. Life is much too short, and we are much too blessed, to focus on scarcity and what might happen.
Lastly, if you’ve not yet found your true blue friends – don’t fret. It isn’t only you. You’re not cursed to a life of loneliness or never feeling whole. Out there, in the blackness of space, there is someone (in fact many) for you. Open your heart and think of what Carl Sagan once wrote “for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Post Script for Nerds:
1742 = 8,244,910 (your target population – or in this case NYC) * 1 (your target gender, 0.5 if it’s either male or female ) * .44 (the no. of singles in the population – and I’m assuming that singles are more open to new true blue friends) * .37 (the no. that are findable – a number lifted from the proportion of people using dating sites which suggests they are available for friendship too) * .247 (your target age range – based on one’s age/2+7 – or in this example someone between 20 and 34, which is 24.7% of the NYC pop) * .96 (a common language – percentage of people who speak english in NYC) * .13 (finding someone attractive – which polls suggest is near 13%) * .13 (someone finding you attractive) * .32 (similar level of education – or 32% of New Yorkers with a college degree)