Eventually Clay's interest slackened. When I e-mailed to tell him I had reached 300 friends, he wrote back, "You're such a Facebook stud," and silently conceded defeat. This wasn't the first time I had heard that term; it is a fairly common honorific among men in Facebookland. Coming from Clay, though, it was especially gratifying.
Meanwhile, Barbara was completely losing it. She couldn't understand why I had given up so much of my precious spare time to get lost in an obsessive quest that, in her view, was about as life affirming as channel surfing. She compared my dalliance with Facebook to the sorry pursuit of a middle-aged playboy who gives up a perfectly good life just to see how many notches he can add to his belt.
To be honest, Barbara had a point. Gone were the Sundays when she and I would take long walks in the park or visit museums or have a quiet dinner at our favorite bistro down the street. I'd even abandoned my true passion—oil painting—and hadn't finished reading a book in months. One Sunday after I had wasted the whole day on Facebook, Barbara tried the tough-love approach: "I hate to say this, honey, but you really need help. There must be a shrink you can talk to. This little habit of yours is not that great for our marriage."
I agreed to look into it. But instead of going to a therapist, I turned—where else?—to Facebook. On the Facebook site I found a test to determine whether I had what is known as Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD). The test included 20 questions, to be rated on a scale of increasing addiction from 1 to 5. Among them: How often do you fear that life without Facebook would be boring, empty, and joyless? (I said 3) And: How often do others in your life complain to you about the amount of time you spend on Facebook? (5) I ended up with a score of 70 on a scale of 100. The diagnosis: "You are experiencing occasional or frequent problems because of Facebook."
I wasn't certifiable yet, I guess. But as time went by—and I crossed the 500-friend mark—I started feeling I was caught in an endless game of diminishing returns. Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., has concluded that the cognitive power of the human brain limits the size of the social networks we can sustain. In other words, he says, the outside limit for human friendships is roughly 150. As soon as my circle of friends exceeded the Dunbar number, I learned, the experience became less intimate and more like watching TV.
I was also surprised to discover that, as my list of friends grew, my personal posse of seven or eight people who commented regularly on my posts didn't expand proportionately. Plus, keeping everybody entertained with amusing anecdotes and personal chitchat was taking up a lot of time that could have been better spent having coffee with actual friends.
Then a funny thing happened: Al Pacino accepted my friend request. Some people thought he was an impostor, because his profile disappeared without notice a week later. But his final post was a classic: "Al Pacino has become a friend of himself."
Whether it was coming from the real Al or not, the quip rang true. Was someone trying to send me a message?