The Value of Knowing About 20 People

The Difference Between Your Follower Count and Your ‘Real Friend’ Count

by Rick Paulas

“Tomorrow you drive away and you get on a plane and this whole thing is over. I go back to knowing, like, twenty people. I’m going to have to decompress from all this attention. Because it’s like heroin getting injected into your cortex. And where I’m going to need real balls is to sit and go through that. And try to remind myself of what the reality is — that I’m thirty-four years old and I’m alone in a room with a piece of paper.”

Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in The End Of The Tour

Knowing about twenty people, for most of us, is normal existence. Let’s just run down the list: a significant other, a modestly-numbered group of friends, co-workers, family, perhaps a few extended relatives made the cut, and some neighbors. At least, that’s how it used to be. Social media, and the ease of its accessibility, has thrown a fat old monkey wrench into the equation.

I have 551 “friends” on Facebook, which puts me over the adult user average of 338. I follow roughly 200 folks on Instagram and another 800 on Twitter. I don’t really do LinkedIn, and I don’t have the proper bandwidth for whatever Periscope is. My MySpace profile lingers in whatever dusty wasteland that all our profiles do. And yet, few of these “friends” or “followers” really know me — my worries and struggles, my hardships and heartaches, hell, even my favorite drink or TV show. This seems problematic.

Illustration: Matthew Lang
“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

One of the ways I came to emotional terms with a recent move — and, thusly, saying so long to a good chunk of my social circles — was knowing that all my friends would still be around, albeit in digital, ethereal forms. I could check in, see what they’re up to, “like” their various statii, participate in the usual conversations over text or Facebook, and not miss a beat. While having those interactions available was comforting and helped me get through the rough terrain of a 30-something jumping from a full crew to a nonexistent one, it was also clearly a lie. Whatever this thing is, it’s not reality.

We’re slowly coming to realize the effect these networks have on us. Studies show that people in bad moods spend more time on social media; one possible explanation is that they’re trying to find people worse off than they are. This, for somewhat obvious reasons, only furthers the depression, seeing as everyone curates their idealized versions by editing out their danker nooks and darker crannies. Other studies point towards how social media usage works a whole hell of a lot like addiction: every red notification, or heart icon, or “Fav” acts as a reward. Every ping, an emotional hit, promotes an addiction-like behavior and response. For a fun experiment, see how long you can realistically get by without checking social media. When the shakes and sweats start coming in the fourth hour, you’ll know what withdrawal is like.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace writes, “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” This is an important lesson. One that we — hopefully — learn after the diploma slams the door on our high-school career. Yet getting to this point is a lot harder when all it takes is for someone to double-thumb their phone to shoot us an instant notification reminding us that they are out there, watching, and waiting. Maybe it’s time for us to decompress, to withdraw, and to go back to knowing about 20 people.

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them were serious, many of them not. He lives in Berkeley and is a fan of the White Sox.