How many friends do you have? The answer to that question will inevitably depend on your age. For those of my vintage - let's just say over the age of 40 - the response is likely to be in single figures.
But, if you're someone who's grown up with social media, you are certain to have a very different perspective. It's likely that your friends will be counted in hundreds, if not thousands. Such is the increasingly impersonal nature of modern communications that someone you've never met, but who is willing to share his or her holiday snaps or send you electronic birthday greetings, is regarded as a friend.
Not a proper friend, obviously, not the sort you'd trust to get you out of a jam, but a contact at the least, and a zip wire into the world beyond your immediate social circle. This has been just one of the benefits conferred by the advent of Facebook. It has connected people whom the real world would keep as strangers, and has allowed all its members to bask in virtual popularity. Plus, of course, it's famously open or free. Or at least it was.
The network has just decided to charge users who want to make new friends, particulary if those new friends happen to be in the public eye. Want to send a message to the Olympic diver Tom Daley? That will be £10.68 please. No guarantee he'll respond to your message, of course, but at least it will have been brought to his attention. Salman Rushdie? He comes in a little cheaper at £10.08, a state of affairs rich in irony and pathos.
Here's a man who, under the threat of a fatwa, was under police protection for many years, and whose personal security cost the public purse many millions. Now he's there on Facebook, sharing his thoughts, his photographs and his general whereabouts. A much happier situation, for sure. (I discover, by the way, that we have six mutual friends. Who'd have thought it?)
Under Facebook's new policy, it costs only 71p to send a message to the BBC's business editor Robert Peston, although the network has stressed that its sliding scale of charges should not be seen as some sort of celebrity quotient. It says that these new arrangements are to prevent in-boxes full of spam, but what I don't understand is why Facebook should be taking the revenue.
If Tom Daley has spent all his life getting up at dawn, training hard, developing his talent and subjecting himself to endless competition, why shouldn't he be reaping the reward of his pre-eminence, rather than the faceless engineers of Facebook? In any case, aren't they a little bit behind the times? Twitter has usurped Facebook as a medium for easy communication and engagement and it really is free at the point of delivery (to coin a phrase). Not only that, you're immediately on the same wavelength as Stephen Fry or Piers Morgan (I mean that literally, and not metaphorically).
It doesn't cost anything to send Gary Lineker, for instance, a message, and there's just the possibility that he might respond to you. Just like a real friend, now I think about it.