Debridement: Can I have too many friends?



Facebook isn’t reality. In fact, it skews it. It magnifies the top 10% and bottom 5% (I’m inferring here) of my friends’ day-to-day life. Sometimes I find myself comparing my life, to those skewed views which Facebook presents to me.  I’ve also become keenly aware of the cost, to have consumed all of that data over time. Social networking gives the illusion that we can have an unlimited number of quality connections.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time thinking about how I use social networking. In some respects, it’s great. I’ve connected with people who I never would’ve met: lifelong friends, roommates, connected with almost every facet of my past, and have maintained connections with people from all over the world. Am I really connected to them though? Is there a cost to this mode of connection? What is the quality of those connections? Do my other connections suffer? Do I have enough juice to power all those connections? If there is a cost, who pays it? Me? My more meaningful friendships? Is this healthy to have massive amounts of “friends”?

I work in technology and I often talk about how to develop software more efficiently using agile methodology. For those who may not know, agile has four core ideas to embrace, to produce software more quickly and efficiently:

  • INDIVIDUALS AND INTERACTIONS over processes and tools
  • WORKING SOFTWARE over comprehensive documentation
  • CUSTOMER COLLABORATION over contract negotiation
  • RESPONDING TO CHANGE over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more. There is a clear bias to relationships in agile software development.

Agile was originally designed for teams.  One of the most common frameworks to scale agile across large organizations is the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). One principle in SAFe though that has given me pause, is the definition of an agile release train. An agile release train, or ART, is a collection of agile teams that work together to deliver a common solution. What’s interesting though is that an ART is capped at 125 people. Meet Dunbar’s number.

A person can only maintain meaningful relationships with 125-ish people. Relationships are a key part of shifting quality upward in software. It’s important to maintain loyal and supportive relationships between people; high fidelity relationships. Outside of work, life isn’t so different. In fact, life is often the same.

Last year, I went through an ultrasound-guided debridement for right lateral epicondylitis. What is that? It’s a complex way of saying tennis elbow surgery. After the surgery, I began to focus on the word: debridement (pronounced dEh-brEEd-ment). That word kept me in weeks of pain, but I had the promise of getting better. As I suffered the pains of healing, I ruminated on the word; debridement, almost like a meditation. I started to focus on the active form of the word: debride. What are its virtues? Is there an application elsewhere in my life?

Debridement is always active. Someone actively intervenes, removes the non-essential stuff, which has been inhibiting healthy growth of other stuff. Are my social networks like an organic thing?  Do they require debridement?

That surgery reminded me of the talk I regularly give about product development. Good product owners know how to say no. They regularly debride their list of requested product improvements to make sure they are maximizing value back to the customer.  Backlogs that grow over time unchecked become unwieldy slowing down the product development team.

I’ve been on the Facebook platform for over 10 years and have amassed many online connections. Outside of work though, I’m still limited by Dunbar’s number. I have a fixed amount of relational capital that limits how many people I can have quality relationships with. Online networking gives the illusion that we can remain connected to way more people, but the quality of those relationships drops significantly with each addition. We have a finite amount of relational capital to spend with people.

When I started with Facebook, my online life mirrored my actual life. The people I connected to were directly involved in my life. As I spent more time on the platform though, I hit a point where I had more “connections” online than I could facilitate in real life. My connections shifted from actual to virtual.


On the chart to the right, the purple area represents those people I’m tangentially connected to who have less influence in my life, than do those in the green. The graph starts to curve down due to debridement. Am I a bad person when that happens? I don’t think so, but I’m curious to surface the conversation.

I’ve had a few key moments in life when I’ve needed an escape from social networking: when I came out as gay and ended a relationship. I took a step back and deactivated my account. I had too many connections: some green, some purple. I also didn’t take a step forward and debride my online experience. I didn’t take the time to focus what I was consuming online, or whether or not it was healthy. The other reality is that I had to acknowledge, is that some connections only last for a moment. It was okay to accept that reality. Some connections last for a season. Very few connections last a lifetime. I’m learning that Facebook is intended to evolve over time. It shouldn’t be a large set of connections like notches on one’s wall.

I’ve heard a number of people who voice being offended when someone else un-friends them online and I disagree. If the relationship was so important, why did it stagnate to the point that the other person un-friended me? I see it as the de-friending person giving me a seat back at my table. I can only be close to so many people. I only have so much I can give. Shedding the nonessential stuff, makes room for healthy stuff to grow. Letting go of one connection leaves the opportunity to hang on to another with higher fidelity and strength.

I want my online experience to more closely match my real life experience. That means debridement. It means stepping up on my part to reach out to the people I want close to me. It means more actively participating in the lives of those people I call friends rather than holding a roll of past experiences. It means having bandwidth in my life to receive the people who want to spend time with me. It also means being honest that I can’t be everything to everyone.

I’m curious, do the rest of you see debridement as a necessary practice in your life? I so, is there a right way to go about it? How can do we use agile to debride?


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