Levy: How Many MySpace Friends Is Too Many?

The songwriter Buzzy Linhart once said, "you've got to have friends." indisputable. But 5,000 friends? Questionable. The seeming excessiveness of that concept is part of the reason the social-networking site Facebook caps the number of friends any person can gather at that lofty figure. Yet when the popular Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch posted recently that Facebook was about to end the limit, the item garnered a lot of attention, and even some excitement. The report turned out to be a false alarm—Facebook still maintains a 5,000-

friend ceiling, a company spokesperson told me, and has no plans to raise the limit in the immediate future. But the episode evoked a lot of questions about the nature of "friendship" when it comes to sites like Facebook and MySpace. How many friends is too many? And how friendly do you have to be with someone to become an online friend?

While Facebook doesn't want to dictate rules of friending behavior to its users, the company is explicit in stating that the purpose of maintaining a list is not to see whose friend belt has the most notches. The point is to keep in closer contact with those who are already in one's social circle. The average Facebook user has about 105 mutually accepted friends, and fewer than a thousand people are bumping against the company-imposed limit. But some of those who have reached that number insist that it's too meager. Jeff Pulver, an entrepreneur and technology consultant who often spends 12 hours a day on Facebook for work and play, despises the restriction. When someone asks to be added to Pulver's cohort, he or she gets a message reading, "Jeff has too many friends," a phrase that doesn't compute with Pulver. "Who am I to say no to friendship?" Pulver asks. He has a waiting list of 500 would-be friends. Worse, when someone he wants as a Facebook friend asks in, he must kick someone else out to make room.

In contrast, MySpace users don't ever have to say no; the philosophy is different there. "At MySpace, the term 'friend' goes beyond 'people I know in the world'," says Steve Pearman, the company's senior vice president for product strategy. In addition to people they actually know—you know, the kind of buddies you'd accompany to a rock concert—MySpacers routinely add actual rock stars and other celebrities to their friend lists. (Facebook allows well-known people to gather large communities by establishing a separate profile where people can sign up to be fans. But saying that you're a fan of Barack Obama or Amy Winehouse isn't the same as including them among your friends.) Comedian Dane Cook had 2,372,807 MySpace friends as of last week, and would have a more successful film career if his friends actually turned out to see his movies. Pearman says that MySpace has no problem with profiles that aren't even human. The MySpace exec has even surprised himself by friending a potato. Let me repeat: a potato. This particular russet, by the way, has 2,965 friends.

Maybe by now you're getting the idea that a friend at Facebook or MySpace is not necessarily the same as a real friend, the kind who brings you chicken soup when you're sick and posts multiple favorable reviews about your book on Amazon. In addition to 20 or 30 genuine BFFs, you might have someone you met at a conference, the kid sitting behind you in Spanish class, someone who wants access to you as a customer or a guitar player in a local band with whom you will never exchange a word. "Instead of 'friend,' it might be better to say, 'I'm linked to you'," says Clay Shirky, author of "Here Comes Everybody," a book about social networking.

But such online linking does have deep social implications, and as one's friend list grows, so do some problems. People judge each other by whom they list as friends. Inevitably, human noise finds its way into a collection of friends, because people tend to cave in and agree to friendship when asked by someone they barely know, or in some cases don't know at all. In real life, we are spared the explicitness of a bald request to be a friend, but there's no such luck online—even ignoring someone's friend request doesn't gloss over the fact that you're rejecting him or her. "It's socially awkward, and very hard to draw the line," says Danah Boyd, a researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Information.

But if you don't draw that line, your list will fill up with semi-strangers and you'll be less likely to share personal information you want your real friends to see. (Facebook offers a way to classify your friend list to let certain clusters see different sorts of things, but it's a pain to go through your list and categorize people.) And making those distinctions is easier said than done. "You know what it's like when you're figuring out who to invite to your wedding—the one day of your life that people will remember, and you have to pick who's in or out?" says Shirky. "Facebook is like that every day."

Not surprisingly, hand-wringing about dealing with all these online friends is the province of a generation that grew up in the physical world. People under 25 seem to have painlessly adapted to these new rules, however unwritten. "Kids have gotten over this," says Boyd. "As a teenager, you can't reject your friends at school, but you won't wind up having 5,000 friends either." Even on the no-limits MySpace, the average number is 180 or so. And that includes potatoes.