After her six year-old flip phone had lost keys and was literally falling apart, my parsimonious and independent 20-something daughter finally agreed to let me get her a new one. It seemed to be taking forever to transfer the data from her old phone to her new one. Finally, she asked the Verizon salesman what was going on. "Well," he said, "It does take some time to transfer all of your 623 contacts." 623 contacts! Really? My daughter was nonplussed. "That has to be wrong, "she said. But later she checked. There were 623 contacts. Then it was my turn to be nonplussed. I only have 62.
It may be that the number of contacts on my daughter's phone is quite average, but there's an awful lot of variability. A survey in 2011 by the Pew Research Internet Project found that "the average cell phone user has 664 social ties," but a survey done the same year in Great Britain found that the average person had 152 mobile phone contacts.
In a very un-scientific poll with a very un-representative sample, I asked my class of thirty college seniors to take out their cell phones and write down for me the number of contacts they had. While there was some variation in the distribution, the class average was 485. That's a lot of contacts.
I wondered if the larger number of contacts had more to do more with the ever-greater proliferation of cell phones in the past few years (according to Pew, 53 percent of American adults had a cell phone in 2011 and last year that percentage had grown to 97 percent) or with the age of the respondents (Pew reported last year a staggering 78% of American teens owned a cell phone, a far higher concentration in a ten year age bracket than other brackets).
But what's even more interesting than the numbers of kids with phones or the numbers of contacts they have are the reasons young people give for having and retaining them.
One of my students mused that many of the contacts on her cell phone were the numbers of people who had been friends in middle school or at camp. "It's not like I'm in touch with them anymore or would even call them," she said, "but I won't delete them. It's a part of my history. It would be like deleting my past."
Another student suggested that the number of contacts on her phone could be thought of as a measure of social success. "They're not all close friends," she said, "but they all are people I know."
But the number of cell phone contacts can also reflect social awkwardness in a few ways. "There are the numbers of women I once dated, or wanted to date," stated one of my male students. Then he hurridly admitted, "it's mostly women I wanted to date or dated just a couple of times. There aren't actually a lot of them." Why does he keep them on his cell phone? "I'm not sure, maybe to remind me of my own social ineptitude" he said, sheepishly.
The number of cell phone contacts has also been used as a measure of something -- it's not clear just what - by respondents to a poll sponsored by Socialanxietysupport.com. The majority in this poll reported having fewer than 20 contacts. So my student was certainly not alone in talking about the number of his contacts as a metric of social difficulty.
Once upon a time, when these college students were younger, many of them took measure of their social status by their AOL Instant Messenger Buddy List. Complete with its own jargon, spellings, emoticons and the ubiquitous door slam sound, many pre-teens delighted in adding to, categorizing and comparing the number of friends on their lists. Today you can find innumerable online reminiscences by 20somethings reflecting on AIM or MSN Messenger were seminal social experiences of their (earlier) youth. These technologies got supplanted by Facebook, and soon young people began posting, discussing and comparing the numbers of their "Facebook friends."
But what all of this makes me wonder is whether preteens and adolescents have a different sense of what it means to call someone a "friend" and how friendships get referenced, maintained and sustained through their media technologies. The often quoted research by Robin Dunbar suggests that humans have the capacity to have about 150 meaningful relationships. But when a young person reports a few hundred Facebook friends, or says that she or he has over 600 cell phone contacts, does he or she really mean that these are "friends," someone with whom they have a meaningful relationship? Probably not.
In a pair of studies reported in Psychology Today, researchers found that young people tended to rank the Facebook profiles of those with larger numbers of Facebook friends (over 300) as less appealing than those who had fewer. The researchers speculated that students viewed those with more Facebook friends as people who spend too much time in the cyber world and not able to make real face-to-face connections.
And danah boyd has concluded in her significant research about how teens use media to navigate, reinforce and maintain friendships and determine social hierarchies that while social media have given teens other ways to reach out to others, especially outside of school, that the friendship groups made in school are still the most profound.
"Part of what makes the negotiation of Friendship on social networksites tricky is that it's deeply connected to participant's offline social life," she suggests.
"Their choice of friends online is not a set of arbitrary personal decisions; each choice has the potential to complicate relationships with friends, colleagues, schoolmates, and lovers. Social network sites are not digital spaces disconnected from other social venues -- it is a modeling of one aspect of participants' social worlds and that model is evaluated in other social contexts."
So what does having 623 cell phone contacts mean? "Probably that it's time to reevaluate " says my daughter.