“After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
– Luke 10:1
Robin Dunbar was a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University. In 1990, he came up with what we know today as “Dunbar’s Number”. His theory was that humans are only capable of managing a certain number of relationships well. (He defines ‘well’ as staying in contact at least once per year and knowing how those friends are relating to one another.) His magic number? 150.
There is interesting history to how he came to this number and you can find that story on wikipedia. What I find fascinating is that Dunbar’s work was done before the arrival of social media, particularly FaceBook.
I hate to admit it, but I have 1,848 friends on FaceBook. Granted that may seem like a lot to some people, but a lot of my friends have way more than I do! I know every one of my friends. I have a relationship with them now or I did in the past. It is pretty amazing that we can keep up with each other this way. The problem is FaceBook doesn’t show me all the posts of all my friends. They have some fancy algorithms that filter all the posts and it shows me what it thinks I want to see. (Let’s not go there in this post.)
Now, here is the rub. Robin Dunbar revisted his theory in 2011 in light of social media. You can find it written up online. It was a massive study. Of the 3,375 FaceBook users between 18-65 years in the U.K., he found they had an average of 150 friends of which 4.1 were dependable and 13.6 expressed sympathy during emotional crises. Astonishingly, the numbers aligned with his previous finding from the early 1990s. He did find that younger users and users who were “online savvy” actually had a greater number of “friends”, but the number of real “touches”, what he defines as “dependable friends”, and “crisis responses” still showed that the 150 number may be pretty accurate. (There was also an amazing story of Tanja Hollander who decided to visit every one of her 626 FaceBook in their homes to answer the question, “Are You Really My Friend?” Her TED talk is really awakening.)
All this leads me to the final thought in Dunbar’s study and the passage from Luke 10. Dunbar does admit that social media connects us in ways that “help keep friendships from decaying over time” – which is a very good thing. But he also stuck to his original findings and said, “face-to-face interactions are necessary to prevent real friendships from sliding into a category he defines as ‘acquaintances'” – people we know, but never touch.
When Jesus sent out his followers ahead of him, I love that he sent them out in pairs. Groups of two people who could build personal connections with the people they would meet. They didn’t send all seventy together, but split them into pairs. When it is all said and done, discipleship is about relationships. Love is about relationships. Transforming lives and embodying grace is about touching lives around you in personal ways.
The next time you are “stalking” on FaceBook to see what your “friends” are doing, why don’t you send them a message and let them know you are thinking about them. Say a prayer for them and let them know they matter to you. That is the only way they truly remain our “friends