DuBois: Will you be my (700th) friend?

I'm not sure if you readers know this, but I'm an incredibly popular guy. Seriously, I'm quite the mover and shaker - or so Facebook would have me believe.

With over 300 friends, you'd think I was some kind of porn mogul, rather than a mild-mannered Geneseo student. In reality, I have regular, meaningful communication with only about 25 to 30 of these "friends," and face-to-face interaction with even fewer.

But that's just the way social networking is, and with over 120 million users worldwide, and about a third of them in the United States, Facebook has become endemic to America's youth. To college students whose friends almost universally subscribe to the site, it's practically a necessity.

But it's exactly the ubiquity of social networking sites and devices that makes them worth a double take. Do you remember the days before social networking tools like Facebook, for better or for worse, completely revolutionized the shape of human interaction? When you had to actually call or go visit your friends to keep in touch?

I do, but the memories are getting hazier by the day, and there is a growing youth demographic in this country that simply can't conceive of life without AIM, Facebook, Twitter and others. Over Thanksgiving Break, I listened with interest (bemusment, horror?) as my two-year-old cousin asked of my stepsister, "What's that?"

"That's eye-toons," she slowly enunciated, just as she would introduce him to the concept of a zebra or a tractor.

I recognize that I'm old-fashioned, but I can't help but wonder what this new brand of communication is doing to our society, especially as more and more of us are growing up immersed in it. In one sense, social networking tools are undeniably beneficial: They allow us, like any good technology, to expand and intensify that which we already value.

In an increasingly mobile work world, where even close friends often lose touch, Facebook et al. offer a way to stay apprised of friends' lives. Their triumphs, failures and day-to-day minutiae, mediated by a constant and frenetic stream of social "pings" in the form of mini-feeds, wall posts and text messages, can allow us to feel like we've never lost touch.

But what about the hundreds of other "friends" with whom we hold only tenuous bonds? Did I really want to know that the girl I worked with over the summer just made an awesome sandwich but misses her biffy-boooo? Emphatically, a thousand times, no.

Spending our limited time and social energies following the vicissitudes of their lives seems as absurd as fetishizing the goings on of celebrities and fictional characters. For all the involvement we have with most of our Facebook friends, they might as well be fictional.

There is a concept in sociology called "Dunbar's Number," that places the maximum number of meaningful social ties a human being can maintain at about 150. With this many ties, one would have to devote about 42 percent of one's time to "social grooming." Like the way monkeys groom each other. Thanks to social technologies that save time, that percentage may be lower.

But for those of us with upwards of 700 "friends," this should give pause. How many monkeys can we groom before that grooming becomes sloppy and sub-par? Based on the decline in the quality and depth of interpersonal communication, especially among young people long-ensconced in social networking, that number may be lower than we'd like to think.

Matt Dubois just made an awesome sandwich.