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Friends, what am I worth?

I recently read a fact about Somali pirates that I can’t seem to shake from my mind: Many of the captives have been held until their friends have raised $1 million in ransom.

One million dollars?

As we learned a few weeks ago, the Somali pirate problem raises far sadder and more tragic issues than this. Innocent people have been killed. The violence is ratcheting up.

Yet there is something about this ransom number that forces me to ask this question:

Would my friends pony up $1 million to save my hide? Would yours?

I don’t know about you, but I fear the ransom drive would end badly. I can see the scene now, as a Somali pirate holds a cell phone to my ear:

“Well, the good news is this,” one of my friends would say. “All of your friends, every one of them, agreed to contribute.”

“So, what’s the bad news?”

“The grand total is $743 … wait, I just found a couple more nickels … $743.10.”

I’m not saying that my friends – or your friends – are cheap. I’m just asking the question: Do any of us have enough friends to collect $1 million?

And I suppose I am asking another question as well. How much money could you, or would you, be able to pony up if a friend needed rescue? We all believe that no price can be put on friendship – but what if you had to put a price on friendship? What would that price be?

I’ve been thinking about this matter of friends – and their quantity – during the last two weeks because I have finally broken down and signed up for Facebook. Apparently, I now can quantify my friendships, and that number is 162.

That’s how many Facebook friends I have so far, and it’s not far from the Facebook average of 130. Many people will snicker at how low that number is, because they have thousands of Facebook friends, but I find it hard to take their numbers seriously. In fact I find it hard to take my 162 number seriously, since it includes a lot of people I don’t really know. And at the same time, it does not include many of the people closest to me, who are of the non-Facebook generation.

Taken all in all, it may actually be pretty close to the number of people I might consider friends. In fact, a brain researcher has famously theorized that the average number of true relationships – friends – that one person can hold in their brain is about 150. The reasons involve complicated issues of neocortex size. Even without examining the research, I think most of us would agree that it sounds about right. Who has enough space in their brains to keep more than 150 friends straight?

So, let’s say I have about 150 friends. Let’s do the math.

If you are going to ransom me from Somali pirates, every one of you will have to be willing to write a check for $6,667. You’ll have to give up a pretty nice tour of Europe, or a used car, or a cosmetic surgical procedure, just to save me.

Or any of your approximately 150 friends. You’ll be on the hook for that amount if any one of them needs a ransom payment.

If you’re a true friend, you’ll start saving now.

Reach Jim Kershner at or (509) 459-5493.
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