“Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence.”—It’s a Wonderful Life

“Keep your friends close, and your Facebook friends closer.”—Sun Tzu. No wait, Niccolò Machiavelli. No wait…Mario Puzo?

I’m closing in on 100 “friends” on Facebook, and I find that deeply unsettling. That benchmark forces me to confront a terrible truth. I don’t really have 100 friends. I don’t even think I have 50 friends. In fact, I probably can’t think of fifty names off the top of my head. And I don’t mean I can’t think of 50 names of people I know; I can’t think of 50 names that exist in the world. Let’s see…Jennifer is a name people have. Also, there are Michaels, Bettys, Antwans, Gertrudes, Johns, Azizes, Herculeses, Hortences…um…several flavors of Dwaynes…and I’m stumped. Can’t think of any other names that people might have. Oh, yeah, Timothy is a name too. Duh. So how is it that I’ve got 98 friends? Who are these “friends,” and how do they fit into my real and virtual lives?

I joined Facebook on October 15, 2007. I don’t remember joining, but Facebook logs everything I’ve done on the site, and by scrolling back far enough, I was able to view my Facebook birth. Much has been written about Facebook’s mainstream emergence in 2008. Certainly, I didn’t do much with it until around March of last year. Suddenly, through some strange convergence, my peers were on it. “We’ve all agreed to do this, right?” was our uneasy, tacit, virtual nod to one another. And for a while, it was fun. We joked about the amount of time we spent on Facebook. We didn’t question ourselves when we began to use “friend” as a verb. My total number of friends numbered in the mid-thirties, which seemed like a stretch, and I couldn’t imagine it ever topping forty.

Then I started to notice that I perpetually had a Facebook tab open on my browser. So did my face-to-face friends, whenever I’d have occasion to see them at their computers. I began to notice that some of them updated their profiles an awful lot. By mid-summer, some of them had gaudy numbers of Facebook friends. Hundreds of friends. Obscene. And yet, their numbers compelled me to start friending around. Upon every log-in, the People You May Know section on the right side of the web-page coerced me. “I do know Betty Johns-Hortence! I will Add as Friend! It’s so easy. I’m less alone in the world now.”

Other people sent me friend requests. I tried to be picky at first. I’d agonize and deliberate before accepting a friend request from someone I barely knew. After all, it’s not Dude-I-Met-Once-Book, or so I initially thought. But Millennials are apt to friend you after just one meeting. (Millennials: So cheerful, so enthusiastic.) And being an angst-ridden Gen-X member, those requests might sit in my Notifications box for weeks. But ultimately, I refused few. And my number of friends grew steadily…

98 and Counting*** (as of 01/27/2009; some people are categorized in more than one group)
My Inner Circle of Friends™ (those with knowledge of the secret handshake) = 8
Friends of my Inner Circle friends = 12

Ex-girlfriends = 8
Friends of my ex-girlfriends = 7

Coworkers = 0
Former coworkers = 1
Coworkers of my friends = 5

Family members = 3 (all cousins)
Family members of my friends = 9

College friends = 2
High school friends with whom I have an ongoing friendship = 2
High school friends added after 20th reunion = 13
Business school friends = 17

Neighbors and former neighbors = 1
Real estate agents = 1
People I don’t recall meeting in person = 3
Texas Monthly Staff = 3
People I’ve met via blogging and being a man about town (i.e. miscellaneous) = 17

Outstanding friend requests = 2 (1 Ex-girlfriend, 1 cousin)

***Some might find the statistical reduction of my friends distasteful. But in fact, for years, I’ve utilized complex algorithms to rank my closest friends according to the quality of their friendship. They are all too happy to compete within the known, but constantly fluctuating system, for privileges and rewards. I publish a bimonthly news letter. In 2004, I started a children’s division, and I have plans to soon introduce an award for Best Ensemble Family. Still working on the math.

These numbers paint a surprisingly accurate portrait of a 38-year-old only child, and perhaps that’s what I find unsettling. I’m insular. I have few close friends, but I trust their taste in friends. I date goodhearted women and I don’t burn bridges when the romantic relationship ends. I haven’t liked my jobs. I’m not close to my extended family, but I like my friends’ families. I’ve failed to maintain my college friendships, largely as the result of never having lived in Chicago, Boston or New York, post-graduation. And finally, moving to Austin for graduate school continues to rank as one of my all time greatest life decisions.

My numbers jumped after my 20-year high school reunion in October. It didn’t seem to matter whether we’d been friends in high school. To some, it didn’t even matter if we’d gotten a chance to actually talk at the reunion. Or that we’d probably not see each other again for another twenty years. We were now Facebook friends. That’s fine with me. One of the joys of attending my reunion was being able to say, “Look, I’m not fat and sloppy!” Facebook contact is a way to say, “Look, I’m still not fat and sloppy.”

Much of what I know about proper Facebook etiquette comes from Nicole McKinney, one of my ninety-eight friends (category: Coworker of an Inner Circle Friend). She’s been a member since 2004, when she was still in college and Facebook was only available to students. She’s responsible for cobbling together a Facebook rulebook, from her own experiences and borrowed from other Internet sources, as a guide for her coworkers. Rule #1: You must have a picture. This is not Questionmarkbook. Rule #3: You should be the only person in your picture. No photos with your much hotter friend. Rule #7: Quit sending applications. No one wants to play Scrabbulous. Rule #18: Don’t be embarrassed to check Facebook at the office. Rule #20: Don’t ask people out over Facebook. It is not an online dating service. Rule #31: Don’t hold out on joining Facebook, it’s required. These rules seemed like common sense…until I looked closely at other people’s profiles. (Not my Facebook friends of course, but some of their acquaintances…bad decisions.) My own official rule: Resist the urge to check a recent ex’s profile. No good can come of this.

Nicole could accurately be described as a Facebook power user. When I asked if I could quote her rules for this article, she emailed that I should probably also note that she’s approaching one thousand friends. I told her that I would note that she considered herself to be “approaching” 1,000 friends even though she had 889 friends at the moment. Nicole needed more friends (111) to hit 1,000 than I had in total (97). She’s now trying to hit 1000 before I hit 100. Five days after our email exchange, and several friendgasms later, she’s sitting at 939 friends. I think she may be creating fake profiles and friending herself. At least 200 of her “friends” look suspiciously like Nicole wearing a fake moustache and sombrero.

I think I’m going to have to be picky when accepting my 100th friend. I may have to put some friend requests on hold. An acquaintance might be fine as friend #102, but I want my 100th to be special. It only happens once. And what will happen when I accept friend number one-zero-zero? Will balloons and confetti drop from my ceiling? From his or her ceiling? Should I make a t-shirt for the lucky centurion? Send flowers? Will we forever be linked by this bond? Why do I feel like this is a Michael Corleone moment? (“I’ve decided to be Godfather to Connie’s baby.”) After accepting Friend 100, will I then be compelled to kill my enemies and consolidate my power?

If so, I want everyone to know, it’s not personal. It’s just Facebook.

TJ Shroat is a freelance writer in Austin.