Hundreds of friends... and a few to cherish

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

THE 18th century writer Samuel Johnson once said: “I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance.”

I can’t help wondering, therefore, what he would have made of Facebook.

It’s the most bizarre phenomenon to influence friendship since the mass adoption of email in the 1990s, with the opportunity to make connections now almost effortless.

But if you ask me, modern life involves being introduced to more people than you know what do to with.

And it causes a whole headache of problems, with another of Dr Johnson’s musings – that “a man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair”.

I am guilty of failing to do this, spectacularly, and I blame social media.

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It tricks you into thinking you are keeping in touch with all your long-lost pals but actually it is so time-consuming it prevents you maintaining solid relationships with those you hold most dear.

New UK research backs this up.

A study released last week found that one in nine Facebook users admits to spending a daily average of eight hours on the social networking site and checking their accounts over 20 times a day.

I am not that bad but I admit it would be easy to spend time trawling through the pages of my 324 friends, catching up with all their news, without ever saying a word to them.

A quick analysis of my Facebook connections reveals that 50 are family members, 49 are old schoolfriends, 48 university pals and 51 workmates.

Another 14 are friends I made through my children and five are ex-boyfriends.

The rest – 107 – belong to a miscellaneous category of waifs and strays I have picked up along the way. Some of these names I barely recognise.

A further study of all the groups reveals I send regular messages to less than 20%, I know the mobile telephone numbers of less than 10% and 5% are people I have never even met in person.

What a curious thing friendship has become.

And can it even be called “friendship” if it only involves clicking to “like” a person’s photo or a status occasionally, rather than picking up the phone for a good natter?

Throughout my life I have made – and lost – a number of friends I wished I had taken better care of.

Some were lost to foreign lands, others to childish squabbles, a few when our lives took different directions and one or two to the inevitable divide of mutual friends when a romantic relationship breaks down.

My first ever friend was a little girl with red Wellington boots. We did everything together. And then, when I was seven, her family moved to Switzerland and I was left heartbroken.

We wrote to each other, of course, but then I started a new primary school and found another best buddy.

Secondary school was a battleground of friendships – with teenage traumas breaking and mending the connections on a daily basis.

Then, at university, I was thrown together with a new gaggle of girls and we made unlikely bonds as we forged our way through the minefield of independence.

It was while studying for a post-graduate diploma in journalism that I started to form relationships with people who had the same interests and passions as I did.

And the world of work helped me cement further friendships with like-minded souls.

Sadly, with each move forward into adulthood, new friends were made and many of the old ones cast aside.

Often we just drifted apart – when we no longer had anything in common or as the result of circumstance.

It is probably this group which makes up the 80% of my Facebook friends that I am not in regular contact with.

A group of dormant ties, once meaningful and which I can’t bear to relinquish completely.

I suppose it is reassuring to know they are still there in my life – albeit in the virtual one.

I could continue to beat myself up over my inability to maintain all these connections properly.

Or I can console myself with the fact that nobody has the time or energy to maintain sincere friendships with 324 people.

In fact, a study last year found the human brain is capable of keeping only 150 friendships.

Scientists defined these as “maintained friends” – those you care about enough to contact at least once a year.

But a relationship expert who analysed the report pointed out that the number of “true” friends you have – those you contact more regularly and love like family members – is likely to be much smaller.

A summation backed up by the well-known saying that “you can count your true friends on one hand”.

My best friend is my husband but I have also picked up at least one true friend from every step of my life – school, university, work and the world of motherhood.

I hope that having relocated from London to Suffolk I will continue to add to this list.

True friends are worth their weight in gold. They are trustworthy and loyal. They make you laugh, comfort you when you cry and offer advice at the times you need it most. They forgive you when you are remiss at getting in touch. But, most importantly, they are the ones to cherish above the Facebook clutter, because they are few and far between.

Which brings me to yet another of Dr Johnson’s quotes – that “true happiness consists not in the multitude of friends, but in their worth and choice”.

n Please email me or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.