I often get challenged when people see how many friends I have online. 846 on Facebook at the moment, I believe, for example, and 548 on Livejournal. People seem to think that's impossible, or that I must just follow anyone who asks.
But no, actually, there are only an honoured handful of "imaginary Internet friends" as I call them; I turn down any requests I get from people I don't know, unless they can provide a quite exceptionally good justification. I think there are under a dozen such people either on FB or LJ - still under 20 between them. I turn down lots of requests from random strangers on Facebook and LinkedIn and am followed by quite a lot of them on Twitter and a few on LJ, for instance. (Not that the latter is a problem at all -- I am honoured, in fact.)
No, all those thousand-odd people are actually real-life friends and acquaintances, odd as it may seem, any one of whom I'd be happy to go for a pint or two with at the drop of a hat. The handful of people I haven't met -- all of whom I've spent hours talking with online - I would be delighted to get the chance to actually meet and get to know IRL.
This does seem to be a lot more than most people; some have said to me "I think I know a total of about 150 people in the world! How can you know so many?"
Well, actually, in researching this piece, I've discovered that about 150 is a fairly typical value for what is called Dunbar's Number -- or as I think of it, the size of someone's monkeysphere, as described in this article on a humour site some years ago -- an inglorious location for something that I think describes quite an important idea.
My monkeysphere is very big. Perhaps I am more than normally gregarious, I don't know, but the social Internet permits me to keep track of a lot of people... And I've been on the Internet for a very long time. I am quite proud of my 21-year-old email address -- I've been paying for my own access via the excellent CIX that long. But I was online some six years before that, on JANET at university, a facility I used quite heavily.
Partly I manage such a large circle of friends by subdividing it into different circles - CIXen, geeks, goths, bikers, cow-orkers, SF fans and so on. It can throw me for a loop when someone unexpectedly crops up in more than one circle, although some people span three or even four. I seldom try to interconnect them any more -- it rarely works.
But many people seem to find this inconcievable.
So I am curious... Do many others think that this is unreasonably large? Am I that unusual? I know far more gregarious people than I -- my old friend Rob Neuschul is a good case in point, for instance.