Friends are trusted people who help you when you are down, praise you when you are up and are there for you whenever you need them – even if it costs them time or money. No doubt you have a definition of a friend. You know who your real friends are and some people even have “best friends”. But most people can count their true friends in single figures, with a wider circle of good friends.

But things are changing. Online, people have thousands of “friends”. But are they “real” friends? Or is the definition of friendship changing? Because you can see how many “friends” people have in social networking sites there is now competition to have a bigger number of “friends” than other people in the network.

Some people argue that you cannot have enough online friends. Indeed some social networking gurus will tell you that you need to have as many friends as possible as you never know when they might come in useful. That’s a bit like saying you should meet everyone in your town as you never know when you might need them. Or perhaps you should knock on the door of everyone in your country – just in case.

Clearly the argument that you should have the maximum number of online “friends” is plainly daft. It has no more substance to it as an argument as saying you should meet as many people as possible in your local pub, club, shopping centre or railway station. So why are so many people “chasing numbers”?

Firstly, it’s about self esteem – if other people have larger numbers of “friends” than you, you feel somehow inadequate. Hence building up a big list of online friends is essential for some people simply to help prove to themselves they are likeable people.

Secondly, it’s competitive. Many people who are early adopters of new technology are competitive by nature. Hence it is a natural follow-on that they should wish to gain the biggest list of friends as possible.

But chasing numbers does not equate to success. If I wanted to help change the way the UK is run I’d only need one friend – the Prime Minister. Having several thousand friends, none of whom run the country, would not help me. Similarly in business, having thousands of general friends will not be of much help in finding new clients – having friends in business development or in the particular industries in which I wanted to work, would help.

In other words you need to find online friends in your niche areas who can really help your business. That’s why vertical social networks in specialist areas, or groups within things like Facebook are more important than the general social networking arena.

Indeed, if you are visible in the general social networking arena, this can be a problem as it proved for the UK actor, Stephen Fry on Facebook. Indeed, if like Stephen you get contacted by thousands of so-called “friends” you could end up simply managing your relationship with them, rather than handling those important contacts who can truly help you.

Like the offline world, gradually you will find a small group of true online friends who provide real support for you when you need it. You will also probably have some good online friends outside this “inner circle”. And like the offline world, everyone else will be mere acquaintances or people you “pass in the street” of the online world. So don’t focus on the numbers game – instead focus on building quality friendships – just like the “real world” outside the Internet.

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