Where'd all my friends go?

Rewiring our collective definition of “together” and “belonging” and “networks"

Our networks are shrinking. New research published in Harvard Business Review shows that our professional and personal networks have shrunk by close to 16% — or by more than 200 people — during the pandemic.

I’ve lost a significant amount of close friends and casual connections in the last year. Some of this loss was purposeful due to what I will call “irreconcilable political, religious, and racial equity convictions befitting of 2020.” But also some of this  disconnection was not my choice. And I’m afraid there are some folks I may have forgotten to forget.

In the early days of social networks, we used to talk about Dunbar’s Number: the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. That number is roughly 100-200, or roughly 150 people on average.

You know that feeling when someone you went to high school with follows you on social media and you react, “Oh my god, I forgot that person even existed?!” That feeling is because our brains cannot keep track of every single person we’ve ever met and you literally forgot about them. That’s a human being thing.

But in the last decade social networks increased our capacity for keeping in touch with people over time, even if you rarely see them in-person.  Or even if you’re just writing “Happy Birthday” on their wall once a year, it feels like you know people. A lot of people.  

But the global pandemic has fractured our sense of network and “knowing people,” and I’m worried about it. And studying it.

This research shows that “after two months without an in-person gathering, feelings of closeness between friends and family members drop by more than 30%. And after that, friendships go frigid. After five months — far less than the amount of time that has passed since stay-at-home orders were first issued — feelings of closeness between friends plummet by 80%.”

When you factor in deep cultural disagreements about poverty, race, religion and science, it’s safe to say that once we’re all vaccinated and can hang out again, there are some folks we will politely choose to not remember. I know that’s the case for me.

But there are also connections I cannot wait to repair and restore. I wrote about this in September, but although I lost friends this year, I’m so grateful for those who didn’t let COVID-19 come between us.

I’m grateful for the group thread friends who send dumb memes 24/7. For the Marco Polo friends who say, “I’m kind of worried bout you, Greg. Are you taking care of yourself?” For our Sunday night Zoom trivia friends. For Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite helping my kids create and maintain friendships in the absence of in-person school.

For example, my daughter had a “sleepover,” where she and her friends all walked their Roblox avatars to the same house and “slept” overnight together. They stayed up late dual-screening Zoom and Roblox while building and staffing their own virtual Chuck E. Cheese restaurant while laughing their heads off. The next morning, they each woke up in their own real-life homes in their own beds, but immediately jumped back online to “wake up” their avatars and have brunch together. 

Beyond those immediate friend circles, research proves we need to be around outer rings of people, too.  

Researcher Karen Fingerman notes that weak ties offer stimulation and novelty, which is something you won’t get as often from people you know well. Interacting with a pharmacist, a grocery clerk, or mechanic may not seem missable, but it is. These can be both a source of human-to-human comfort, and a source of creative stimulation.

“Casual friends and acquaintances can be as important to well-being as family, romantic partners, and your closest friends,” writes The Atlantic.

The pandemic experience is rewiring our collective definition of “together” and “belonging” and “networks” in a way that will heal my sadness over losing networks and redefine whom I choose to give my time and attention to once things are opened back up. Young people are learning new skills and new ways of connecting that we can’t understand at this moment and should be studying. What a world we will build out of this experience.

Where do we go from here?

If there’s someone you’ve really been missing, reach out to them. HBR says right now, many people are starved for social interaction, and a simple hello can reinvigorate a sense of belonging. They also suggest calling on the phone versus scheduling yet another Zoom.

For me, I miss what I call “f*ck around time” at work. When you’re in back to back video meetings all day, you miss the silly story moments between meetings, the embarrassing story laughs during team dinners, or those late night work sessions where you get to be fully yourself and just enjoying the act of living. If you’ve been in a video call with me in the last few weeks, I may have been super silly or off-topic to start or end the meeting. I’m doing this on purpose to try to reclaim some of what we’ve lost in the era of the lonely black mirror.

When you are next buying gas or greeting your DoorDash driver, make eye contact, smile (under your mask!), and say “hello” to the people in your outer circles. Ask them how they are and listen to their response. If you have an isolated senior in your life, that’s a place to focus on, too.

And if you’re lonely yourself, please know you’re not alone, and I would be happy to chat or just listen. People need people. I’m not an expert, and I’m not alway the greatest friend. But my network is shrinking, and I miss the connections in every ring.

Resources:


Here’s what else I’m tracking this week…

What are NFTs? In an increasingly all-digital world, digital collectible ownership is blowing up among celebs like Lindsay Lohan, Logan Paul and Marc Cuban, artists, technologists, and the general public. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are digital assets that represent a wide range of unique tangible and intangible items, from collectible sports cards to virtual real estate and even digital sneakers. These files are associated with an Ethereum token, kind of like a serial number, to prove ownership of the file. And lots of people have spent millions of dollars on them so far in 2021. CoinDesk reported people have spent $174 million on NFTs since 2017. Read more here.

Happy 20th Birthday, All Your Base meme: Back before memes were called memes, the first-ever shareable content needed to be really different, strange, and hilarious to spread without the benefit of social media networks or smart phones. And a robot-voiced music video made in Flash on Newgrounds.com 20 years ago this week just that, and “went on to become one of the most beloved Internet videos of the 21st century.Read its history here.

Dispo is Coming: There’s a new invite-only social network that’s making waves, and it’s not just because social star David Dobrik is behind it. Dispo, the disposable camera joke app, is turning into a social network that shuns “Instagram aesthetics,” doesn’t allow camera roll uploads, and has built-in time delay for taking and sharing photos patterned after traditional film development. It’s so refreshing!! You can download the camera app now, and look out for the social network rollout in the near-future. It’s suddenly worth $100m.

Influencers Go Union: After three years of discussion, SAG-AFTRA is now creating a pathway for current and future influencers to become SAG-AFTRA members. This new agreement secures union membership protections including access to the SAG-AFTRA pension and health plan. Any influencer that has a signed contract with an advertiser for a branded content deal can access the SAG-AFTRA influencer agreement; the influencer also must be incorporated as a business. The union said it will provide more details on the parameters of the agreement at a future date.

Are People Falling in Love With Their Peloton Instructors? It’s a phenomena that’s spreading across social, but it’s not as creepy or unrequited as one may think. Key quote: “When your circle is condensed to fewer than 10 people for more than 10 months, is it such a surprise that someone you spend every single day with, for anywhere from five minutes to a couple hours, might become an emotional fixture in your life? …In an age like this, we’ll take all the affection we can get.”

Bookazines Are Blowing Up: The concept of publishing magazine-style content in a book (a “Bookazine”) is not new, but the trend is exploding thanks to titles like Better Homes & Gardens' "Secrets of Getting Organized," Delish's "Keto Comfort Foods," and Time's collector's edition on the Korean pop band, BTS. A higher price tag and lower production costs contribute to bookazines' profitability, and all that extra pandemic free time means people are willing to sit and read longer-form content that may have been a POS impulse buy before. Key quote: “We may catch [readers buying them] as an impulse at retail... but really this is an expensive product that they're very passionate about. There's a lot of talk about digital paywalls, but this is the original content paywall."

Patents of the Week: Although patent filings aren’t a guarantee that new technology will come to fruition, they give us a hint of where we may be headed. This week Amazon has one for machine-readable code painted onto roads next to lane markers, which could lead to smart cars having to store less information onboard about local road conditions, instead reading signs in the road that told them they were entering a low-speed zone or that a sharp curve is ahead. Apple has more patents on digital info overlaid on the world, pointing to their coming AR glasses. And Microsoft has one for making deliveries to cars via drone. Read more here.

Quick hits:

See you on the internet!
Greg