Last week I learned a new meaning of the word ‘ghost’: a person you stay ‘friends’ with on Facebook but with whom you never interact otherwise.

This was in the dentist’s waiting room where I picked up a woman’s magazine as my dentist was running a little late. And it is not every day I learn a new word – though living outside my country of birth it does happen from time to time.

From the same article I also picked up another concept: Dunbar’s Number. This indicated a limit to the number of relationships any person can reasonably maintain and invest time and energy in:

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.[1][2][3][4][5][6] This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size.[7] By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.[8] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150.[9][10] Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

Dunbar theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues, such as high school friends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint themself if they met again.[11]


For me this raises an interesting question: as someone who professionally deals with “ghosts” – am I a ghost myself?! And following this definition: yes indeed! I am “friends” on social networks with people I have never met or have practically lost touch with (other than keeping a ‘flimsy’ Facebook connection).

About two years ago I left Facebook for three months and deactivated my account. My intention was to free up time and space for other things (like reading, playing the cello, going for walks by the river). In reality I discovered that I lost touch with many people I do not maintain any ‘intensive’ or regular communications with’ but now I never heard from them at all. So I climbed back in (“ghost accounts can be re-activated any time. They never truly disappear. With one click of the mouse I was back in – as if I had never been away) because the social loss still felt greater than the gain of ‘free time’. After all one can ignore Facebook for weeks (months, years) on end without de-activating an account!

The world has moved on since the time my husband and I (living in Amsterdam and Stockholm respectively) wrote each other long poetic old-fashioned letters. The social world is even moving on from emails now. My three children (aged 15, 13 and 11) never check their emails. It is ‘too slow, too old. too dead’ – meaning that they buzz each other through Facebook, WhatsApp and other group sites and apps instead. And they often seem to communicate as crowds too (flash mobs being the extreme end of that phenomenon) and not so much one-to-one. So the long thoughtful emails I get are all from people aged 40+ or thereabouts. And I have started printing off the truly lovely ones – to make them more like old fashioned letters. To be able to treasure them and re-read them.

Yes, and then there are ‘Followers’. Here on WordPress, on Twitter, etc. So a Follower is different from a Friend or a Ghost: it carries no obligation to ‘be in relationship’ with the person. It just means that they receive updates when you post something (if I understand this correctly).

So I have Friends, Followers and Ghosts…. I am a Friend, Follower and Ghost myself…

And maybe this is just part of living in a ‘Global Village’. It is also part of being in a profession where I see a large number of individual people and teach groups of people. And do I expect myself to stay in relationship with them all? I may try (I write a newsletter for this purpose) but I know that I can’t.

A very good piece of advice I received once was: “Never let your Inbox become your To Do List!’

But working from home I admit I like making flying visits to Facebook to see what the rest of the world is doing.

And I have just given myself permission to no longer reply to ALL  messages or emails I receive.

There is something to be said for being a GHOST sometimes…

Imelda Almqvist

 Life Force TV Interview about shamanism with Imelda Almqvist



Imelda Almqvist is a Dutch shamanic practitioner, teacher and painter based in London, UK