Who Are Our Friends?

The Boston Globe had the following exchange with psychologist John Cacioppo almost two years ago, and it’s worth revisiting :

IDEAS: What is the evidence that people are getting lonelier?

CACIOPPO: In 1984, the question was asked [in a survey], How many confidants do you have? And the most frequent answer was three. That

question was repeated 20 years later, in 2004, and the most frequent response was zero.

IDEAS: Are you horrified by that?

CACIOPPO: I actually am. That’s a stunning change, and it’s a frightening change. People are not having fewer social contacts, but I think they are more harried social contacts – people now seek to have hundreds and thousands of”friends” on Facebook.

I’m pretty horrified, too. His message is much bleaker than Clive Thompson’s New York Times article from around the same time, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” which addressed the positive aspects of the “ambient updates” of Twitter that allow people to learn micro-details about their friends over time. The article asks whether we can really overcome the Dunbar number–the approximately 150 person limit we evolutionarily have on our social connections, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar.

We know people’s circle of acquaintances is growing larger, which is good news for marketers–more opportunities to “go viral” and spread messages widely. But must that also mean our circle of close friends diminishes (which is bad news for humanity)? Does it have to be a zero-sum game, in this time-starved world? Are humans going to be able to adapt to this new reality of too much information and not enough time to absorb it or act on it? Forget genetic engineering–is the next phase in evolution going to be led by personal productivity experts like David Allen and Brian Tracy, just helping us figure out how to cope?

Are depth and breadth mutually exclusive?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.