05/23/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

Virtual Friends or Analog Friends?

At what point do the numbers of people in our networks begin to mean less? At what point does virtual overtake actual?

I'm not sure if we've yet reached a critical moment in managing the floods of modern data. I'm in the business of reaching people, of encouraging them to use social media to expand their networks, of urging authors to blog to write books, of building an online presence and trying to find a voice that will stand out from the millions of others that try to be heard.

But increasingly I am also intrigued by stories of the limits of our networking. Are we able to cast a wider and wider net of virtual social acquaintances that actual mean something?
Mean something professionally and personally, that is.

There's a difference.

Now, today, the world is on at all times. We are never far from our beeps or blips or alerts or pings or reminders. We are never clothed in actual silence. We are never fully without the faint blue light of digital appliances casting their ghostly shadows on our indoor nighttimes. But what about real people? Not just online "names" who represent virtual friends.

That speaks to the limits of our real-world networking. I just came across an article that ran a few months ago in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, that talked about the "Dunbar Number," a figure that evolutionary psychiatrist Robin Dunbar came up with that says that really the most people we can actually truly know on a comfortable and truly interactive basis is about 150.

If you're trying to build a social network for your work, 150 isn't enough, however. But then, if you're building a social network for your work, you want your work to be an extension of you and travel farther. It doesn't matter if you know everyone in the flesh.

I know a lot of people. I'm friendly with many of them. I'm actually friends with only a few. And online, I have a big network, because I use that network to help disseminate the ideas I'm trying to get across, about marketing and communications. I don't need have a meaningful relationship on a personal real-world basis with all of my Facebook contacts. But I don't expect that. I think virtual friendship is different from analog friendship.

Virtual friendship is about business and marketing. I don't expect to receive a Christmas card from my online friends (though it's always nice to be remembered, no matter what). But I hope that they're open to the work I'm doing nevertheless, as I'm open to whatever they're marketing.
And I'm not yet ready to turn away from the digital universe, though I'm aware that my friends in either world -- virtual or actual -- are each true in their own way.

As for tuning out, I'm not quite ready to live off the grid. I'll take the digital halo for a little while longer. There's something I find comforting about that faint blue night light that reminds me of the virtual universes I'm trying to reach.