JESSICA BOWERS DOES NOT SUFFER FROM a shortage of friends.
"My predicament is that with the advent of MySpace, acquaintances can very quickly become friends," says Bowers, a media relations coordinator at Goucher College. "When you're working a 9 to 5 job, and then doing other, career-related stuff and [trying to find] personal time for yourself, it almost becomes too many obligations."
A recent Duke University study on the demise of friendship is an indication of "something that's not good for our society," one of its authors, Lynn Smith-Lovin, a professor of sociology, said this summer.
But for those who don't fit into the scenario presented by the study -- of a growing multitude of would-be friends cocooning instead in suburbia with their nuclear families -- it may be all too easy to make friends.
Within any given community of common interest, be it a kayaking club, an ultimate Frisbee league or a team of Habitat for Humanity volunteers, opportunities for friendship abound.
Alliances made in person are compounded by an ever expanding matrix of cyber friends uploading love on Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and zillions of other online gathering places. Other electronic communication, including instant messaging and texting, also demand a steady supply of 24 / 7 companions.
It can be a full-time job keeping up with all of those friends -- from childhood, from school, from work, from the neighborhood -- and, of course, there are all of those friends of friends.
Just how many Best Friends Forever can any one person sustain? Friendship may be linked to longevity and good health by researchers, but is there a tipping point when nurturing relationships becomes more of a burden than a joy?
"As you get older, you're juggling so many different things, such as family with work," says Michael Papa, a professor of communication at Central Michigan University. "If you're still adding social connections, it can start to create problems in other areas of your life. Unfortunately, you do have to prioritize: What are the relationships that are most important in terms of your own needs and the needs of the other person?"
The hours spent lounging on the Internet may contribute to a decrease in friends, the Duke study speculates. But as Bowers socializes at bars, concerts and clubs with MySpace contacts, her collection of real-life friends has overlapped and converged with a sprawling universe of virtual buddies. It has gotten to the point, she says, where "I don't have time to be collecting people I don't know."
Rather than feel obliged to attend dozens of art openings and concerts showcasing her innumerable buddies, Bowers, 26, finally took her mother's advice and learned to decline invitations.
"I've found that by sacrificing all the 'going, going and going' to all of these social events, I've found more time to write," says Bowers, who has a short story collection in the works and is teaching an English course at Goucher this semester.
Tracy Gosson has never felt the need for a wealth of friends. "I need like two really good confidants and that's it," says Gosson, executive director of the Live Baltimore Home Center, a nonprofit group that promotes city living. "It's too much work having 10 friends."
That Americans' inner circle of confidants has "shrunk dramatically," according to the Duke study, leaves Chicago author Joseph Epstein unmoved. "One of the great divisions of humankind is between those who get a great release from confession and those who don't," says Epstein, whose new book, Friendship: An Expose (Houghton Mifflin, $24), casts a gimlet eye on friendship's complexities. "I don't find myself very alarmed by the fact that people have only two confidants instead of three," he says.
The study's dire conclusions could only emerge in a culture enthralled with its own inner angst, Epstein suggests. "I have no confidants except my wife," he says. "I don't confide everything to her. Other things I cheerfully repress."
Bowers keeps her confidants to a minimum as well. "Honestly, for me my closest confidant is my mom, " she says. "And I have a friend from high school who I'm still very close to and my friends from college. They're my best friends."
There is a "very marked difference between people I want to hang out with because they're fun and people I'd want to spill my guts to," Bowers says. "It's very valuable and privileged information, really juicy stuff. There's just not really a point in everybody knowing all of that."
By the numbers
Through her work, Gosson has acquired "tons of acquaintances and friends in the business environment. It's a huge perk of the job." Apart from those connections, Gosson says, "I have two really, really good friends, that's it. I'm very kind of private that way. And I have my boyfriend."
No matter how many speed-dial buddies you can boast, there are natural limits as to the number of friends one can accumulate, contends Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Liverpool. He and collaborators have found that in a wide variety of cultures the degrees of intimacy expand outward in a similar pattern of concentric rings.
A "support clique of best friends" numbers about five, while the "sympathy group" extends from 12 to 15 members, according to Dunbar's research. Beyond that, are the 30 to 50 folks who are "contacted at least once a month," and beyond them, the greater "social network" with a capacity of 150 members.
Women's social networks are typically larger than those of men, the researcher found. Shelonda Stokes' description of her network of friends conforms loosely to the patterns revealed in Dunbar's work. "You always have those special girlfriends," says Stokes, chief of greiBO Media, a Baltimore-based production company. One friend "calls me religiously at 6:30 every morning and says, 'Are you up?' I have that one and then I have one I'll talk to maybe once or twice a week, and then I have some who are close friends whom I don't speak to for months, and one or two I will talk to daily."
It may be reassuring for those who feel guilty of friend neglect to know that time is an intractable factor in determining the quantity and quality of friendships. "We rather think that you have to invest a certain amount of time to get a relationship up to a certain level," Dunbar says by e-mail. "And that limits the number you can have at that level. "
Like the Duke researchers, Dunbar questions technology's efficacy in forging friendships. "In my view, there is nothing to replace face-to-face contacts," he says.
Limits of technology
As one's friends multiply by the thousands in the digital universe -- far beyond Dunbar's social network boundaries -- the very concept of friendship can be stretched to the breaking point. But in a society besotted with technological possibilities, the drawbacks aren't so obvious.
"We're living in the moment of what's possible and of seeing how we can maximize our communication through technology," Papa says. "People inevitably will begin to recognize [the benefits of] making choices to sustain better relationships rather than always being available to the largest number."
Paul DesMarais, a Goucher senior, is one person who recognizes the limitations of online communication. "I avoid IM because I think it's difficult to talk to five or six people at once," he says. "My reasoning is I don't do that in real life so I'm not going to do it online."
DesMarais has also weaned himself from spending endless hours on MySpace and other social networks. "I do run into those times when I look at being online as almost like a fantasy, even though I'm talking to my own friends," he says. Then, "I realize I should be out somewhere else rather than in my room."
In his book, Epstein attempts to make peace with the fact that not all friendships are equal -- or possible. "I think you have to understand that life is a game of limitations, and endless choices. One simply can't do it all," he says.
Nor does he accept the notion of mandatory reciprocity. "Reciprocity is at the heart of friendship," he writes in his book. But, "to require it is an unfriendly act; it is to turn a friendship into a bartering relationship."
In searching for a healthy balance between friends and everything else, it's wise to listen to those, such as Stokes, who juggles friends, work and small children with finesse and minimal hand wringing. Stokes, 34, revels in her friendships, but knows as well that it's impossible to be all things to all friends at all times.
"I love relationships, but I do believe that in having so many of them, you can't give each of them the amount of attention you'd like to give them," Stokes says. "On the flip side, what you may give them in a short time may be more than if you don't have them in your life at all."
A FRIENDLY BALANCE
* Avoid the "slippery slope" approach to friendship, as author Joseph Epstein does. Meeting for coffee with a friend need not segue to an "extended family vacation to the Antarctic," he says.
* Keeping up with a friendship should not be predicated on guilt, Epstein says. There is a caveat, though: "Where one feels guiltiest is in not attending to old friendships. Older friends seem to call for it and require it."
* A few "great friends are crucial to existence," Epstein says. But the idea of having a vast array of close friends "seems kind of difficult to bring off."
* "Plant a seed with small things," Baltimore businesswoman Shelonda Stokes says. Occasionally, she'll send an inspirational e-mail to a friend, as she did recently. "It didn't take that much time, and it really did something for my friend."
* "Friends are to be savored," says James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas. "If you're spending all of your time in a corner wracked with guilt about not inviting acquaintances over, then something's the matter."
* "You only need a few close friends to confide in," says Jessica Bowers, a media relations coordinator at Goucher College.
* Not every friendship requires exchanging confidences -- or even sentences. When Todd Scott, a senior associate at Himmelrich Public Relations, plays golf with buddies, he says it's enough just to be together. "We enjoy the sounds of nature and say 'nice putt' every now and then."
* Be "in the moment" of a friendship, says Michael Papa, a professor of communication of Central Michigan University. "On the first day of classes, I saw a number of people walking with other people, but talking on the phone to others instead of being in the moment of a face-to-face relationship."