Prelapsarian social media Eden

If you don't give me Strava kudos, I will die

Recently, on a trip to San Diego, I met up with a guy I knew from college. We’d both lived in Outdoor House, but not at the same time, and while we were drinking our coffees, he mentioned another person with whom I actually had overlapped. Though I had almost certainly spent more time with this other person, I had no idea where he was, or what he was doing with his life.

“Honestly,” I said, “since moving to Australia, I have no idea what’s going on in anyone’s life.” And then, of course, the caveat: “Unless I follow them on Strava.”

(My mom tells me I shouldn’t go around assuming everyone knows what Strava is. Okay, fine: It’s an app for tracking exercise, especially GPS-related exercise, i.e. biking and running, and sharing that exercise within your network of followers. I told my mom it was incomprehensible that one would not be familiar with Strava in the year of our lord 2024, and she politely suggested I widen my social circle.)

I knew this former classmate lived in San Diego because of Strava. I sent him a message via Strava messenger (I remain unconvinced Strava needed a messaging feature but here we are) asking about good running routes in the area. I couldn’t tell you how many of my Facebook friends live in and around San Diego, but I can tell you exactly how many of my Strava followers do.

I was listening to a podcast a few months ago about the lifecycle of social media platforms. The podcast argued that people start to feel burnt out of a social network when it gets overwhelmed by corporate interests (ads + sponcon + recommended posts from non-friends meant to keep your attention so you see more ads and sponcon).

User experience lifecycle

Agreed. But also, I’m pretty sure I would’ve burned* out of Facebook regardless. Even a Facebook with no ads, no inflammatory political posts, no weird suggested groups. Because I have too many Facebook friends.

*An aside no one asked for: Burnt is both adjective and verb in UK/AUS English. In American English, you typically use burnt as the adjective and burned as the verb. That’s why I said “people start to feel burnt out” two paragraphs ago but “I would’ve burned out” just now. IMO Americans should just use burnt, but I would be upset if we started using spoilt and learnt, so I recognize that I need to work on my internal consistency.

Most of my college classmates have ~1500 Facebook friends, which is to say, too many. I am sure I have hundreds of Facebook friends who have not thought or seen my name for literal years and dozens who would not recognize me if we were seated next to each other on a plane.

Strava, on the other hand, is a happy place. I follow 100 people. I feel like I have an intimate peek into their worlds, and they into mine (and they into my location data). I feel such a genuine fondness for the people I follow on Strava, and I am so pleased for them when they have a good run or bike ride. I don’t remember the last time I felt that kind of visceral pleasure on Facebook.

Maybe I like Strava because it’s actually based on something outside of its own existence. You could argue X is based on text or Instagram is based on visuals, but there’s no identity formation involved in being someone who posts short bursts of text. In comparison, being someone who is weirdly active on Strava feels like identify formation. “I must be a committed and/or talented athlete; why else would I be on Strava so much?” But I also think that my experience on Strava, which has remained positive and relatively unchanged for the past seven years, is inextricably linked to the number of people I follow.

100 people makes my brain happy.

1500 people makes my brain give up.

Oldie but a goodie: The Limits of Friendship by Maria Konnikova for the New Yorker. It’s on Dunbar’s Number, which posits that our brains can only handle so many friends. 150, to be exact. This is based on the size of our brains compared to other primates + a survey of group sizes in modern hunter-gatherer groups (148.4 people) + qualitative interviews. Dunbar also suggests that there’s a rule of thirds—a third of our 150 friends are close friends, a third of those friends are best friends, a third of those friends are family.

Personally, I’d take these all numbers with a heavy dose of -ish

Anyone who has had hundreds or thousands of internet friends knows that you cannot possibly keep up with this many people, even from the comfort of your home, even when you don’t physically need to go anywhere to keep up with them. It’s interesting to me, then, that social networks are so desperate for us to make more, broader connections rather than guiding us toward more interactions with a smaller subset of users. I keep thinking of that get-to-know-you question, “Would you rather have one best friend or several close friends?” Except, in this case, it feels like the question is, “Would you rather have 50 good friends or 1500 acquaintances?”

Of course, I could go unfriend a thousand people on Facebook, but to what end? Even if I had a small community of friends, all of those people would still in their own unwieldy networks. And if it mattered to me to be seen and heard on Facebook, I wouldn’t be, because everything I said would be lost in the noise of their vast friend lists. Also, does anyone really want Facebook to be a nice place to hang out anymore?

Lately, I’ve been thinking of online communities as fragile little Edens. There’s an idyllic “Before,” in which all feels intimate and innocent, followed by a grand disillusionment, in which you become aware of the company’s financial interests—and how these financial considerations outweigh the company’s desire to preserve your experience. Maybe you stick around a while longer, but you’re not having fun anymore. One cannot, as the kids say, un-eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge.

Over the past few months, my Strava feed has become increasingly cluttered with nonsense: challenges from corporate sponsors (“Run 20 miles this month and get 20% off Ultra Green Fit Protein Shakes!”); suggestions for groups my friends have joined, even if I live nowhere near them and have no interest in their local run clubs. Maybe it’s inevitable that all social media will eventually push its users toward loose acquaintances and brands and groups full of strangers.

Until then, please give me kudos on Morning Run.


Currently reading: I just finished the audiobook of I’m Glad My Mom Died. Pretty sure everyone has already read this, but hey, it’s not too late! As a kid, I hated when adults were cast in teen TV shows (“That’s not what teenagers look like!”), but I increasingly feel like no child should be famous (or royal, but that’s for another day).

Non-urgent thought of the week: Why are we all suddenly obsessed with California neuroscientists? What it portends, I know not.

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