Lite News and Limits

If you're like me, you're 5'3" and named Emily.  And you love to know about what's going on in the world, but you loathe the drivel on TV and radio, and you don't have time to sift through weightier fare like The New York Times and The Economist (to which I actually subscribe, but have time to read maybe 1 issue in 10.)

Enter The Week, a miracle magazine.  The best of the news in bite-sized fragments: multiple points of view about all the major issues, just enough celebrity gossip (one page,) reviews of current films and art exhibits, and even a crossword on the last page.  They're all summaries, but if you read something that sparks your interest, you can always find the whole article online.  There's a liberal amount of humor sprinkled throughout, and a liberal bent to almost every story, but it's worth it to me to know what's going on without having to read all the contributing publications, which probably number close to a hundred per issue.  The Week, by contrast, can be read cover-to-cover in about two hours (minus the real estate section.  Ugh.)

End shameless commercial plug (no, I don't own stock; I just value an informed public.)  What I really wanted you to read is this, last week's letter from Francis Wilkinson at the editorial desk.  Rarely do I agree so completely with someone else that I have nothing to add to it, but this fits that category.

There appear to be hard limits on the soft power of friendship. In an article in The Economist last week, Facebook’s “in-house sociologist” has revealed some interesting data about behavior on the social networking site. It turns out that the average Facebook user has 120 friends in his or her network. That figure roughly corresponds to the “Dunbar number,” a hypothetical limit on the human brain’s capacity for social networks, which peaks at around 148 people. Significantly, the average Facebook man interacts with only seven of his friends on a deeper basis, by responding to postings and leaving messages of his own. The average Facebook woman is more social—but her circle of genuine friends closes for serious business at around 10.

Curiously, we’ve seen that ratio—120 options, with little more than a handful regularly selected—on display in another venue. The average American home receives 119 television channels. Yet we watch, on average, only 16 of them. The excess channels are like casual friends on Facebook: available, but not really where we want to invest our time. Whether the emotional staple is entertainment or friendship, it seems there are limits, biological or otherwise, to our appetite for more. If our brains impose a natural restraint on social networks, and shun the promiscuity of the satellite TV menu, perhaps other limits, now hidden, may ultimately be revealed to us, as well. The very idea that choice and human capabilities have boundaries seemed like defeatist heresy not long ago. But today, as we begin to dig our way out of a global collapse occasioned by seemingly infinite greed and bottomless stupidity, limits have never been more appealing.