Should I Say "Hello?"

As I stood up to leave the restaurant I saw her, or rather, I recognized her from her Facebook photo. She had been sitting at a table behind mine so I hadn't realized that we were having lunch in the same place, at the same time. She is my "friend" and I am a "friend" of hers, well, one of her 2500 "friends." Our eyes met and I wondered: Should I say "hello" and ask how her father was adjusting to his move into a nursing home? Or congratulate her on her son's acceptance into Yale? Or mention how terrific I thought it was that she had learned how to drive a motorbike during her vacation in Bermuda? Normally I would have automatically greeted someone I recognized, but Facebook is affecting my behavior.

I used to know who my friends were, but now I'm confused. I stood there transfixed for a few seconds before I decided to say nothing and move on, yet I felt I had missed an opportunity. Here was an interesting woman who perhaps knew the details of my life, as well as I knew hers, but then, I thought, I have 200 "friends" compared to her 2500. Among so many, would she have noticed me? Was I walking away from a possible off-the-Facebook-page friendship, or avoiding an "Excuse me, but I don't think I know you" awkward moment? The question haunted me as I headed out the restaurant's door. I wondered how many others had experienced a similar moment of transfixion, hesitation, and dubious retreat.

The very next day I read about a newly-published study in the journal Royal Society Open Science, by British anthropologist Robin I. M. Dunbar, who had conceived the Dunbar Number - 150 - the number of meaningful relationships the human brain can manage. In surveys of over 3000 Facebook users, Dunbar aimed to see whether social media broke through constraints and increased our ability to have more than 150 manageable offline relationships, in other words: Could each of us have more friends than we ever imagined? Could my "Facebook friend" in the restaurant actually become a "real life friend?" Even accounting for variables such as sex, age, number of Facebook friends, Dunbar's concluded answer was: No.

It seems that whether you have 200 or 2000 Facebook "friends," the levels of friendship are the same online as they are offline in the face-to-face world. Dunbar describes friendships as having layers, the layer closest to one's heart, the "support clique," has a grand total of 5 friends, who are confidantes. The next layer, the "sympathy group" has about 15 friends. Friendship layers, ranked according to closeness, are in groups of 5, 15, 50, 150. The farther out you go, the less close you are. Layers of 500 and 1500 are on the outer limits, and considered to be more acquaintances than friends. Although Dunbar hypothesized that social media would increase the numbers in every layer and provide each of us with closer friends, that did not turn out to be the case.

People still need face to face social interaction to maintain close friendships, and that takes actual time. Those with large networks may have increased the number of their outer layer acquaintances but they did not create more close friends. Yet there seems to me a certain weirdness in the fact that people know so much about me, and I about them, but we're not close enough for me to feel comfortable saying "hello" during a chance encounter.

I have an admiration for photographer Tanja A. Hollander who set out five years
ago to photograph all 626 of her Facebook friends, travelled the country, and created face-to-face friendships with people she hardly knew before. When I think about that, I feel ready to change my attitude and for better or worse, just say "hello." It's not the online facts of one's life, but the offline human connection that makes a "friend" a friend. Maybe by saying "hello" I could join those 50 or so in a "friend's" closer layer, and possibly expand my friendship layers too.