An acquaintance of mine claims to have 258 friends. That number could be larger, actually; the figure only represents the number of boon companions who show up on her MySpace page and not those additional pals who might appear in real time but avoid online social networking. Among this tight-knit group are celebrities, a personified representation of the university she attended, people with whom she’s shared neither the same physical space nor an actual conversation, and an assortment of random human beings who actually do spend time with her in the non-virtual world. Admittedly, this gal is more outgoing than I am, and is far more in tune with the latest social trends. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something oddI even want to say “disturbingabout this densely populated area of her life.
It’s not the numbers in themselves that bother me; rather, it’s the fact that all of the inhabitants of this e-community share the same label: “friend. OK, fine, what else should you call them, on a site not devoted to business, school, or any other “work-related organization? After all, this sort of acquaintance wasn’t even conceivable only twenty years ago. Pen pal? Not exactly. Associate? That sounds so Wal-Mart. Webfriend? More accurate, perhaps, but we don’t want to get too techno-geek on everyone. The point is that, whatever we think we’re describing with this new sort of relationship, “friend” seems to be the easiest, least confining identifier to use, end of story; don’t take your semantics so seriously.
But I do take semanticsas well as friendshipvery seriously. After all, without friendsthose anchors who stand by you, stave off loneliness, keep you accountable, save you from your own egoexistence would be exceptionally dull. And so, when you can gain or lose a friend in the microsecond it takes to click a mouse, should we worry about the fact that the rich phenomenon that is friendship might be losing some of its complexity?
Let’s take a look at this new realm of cheery community formation. Whatever your preferred site, the routine is more or less the same. You present as much or little, as far-fetched or honest, a public face as you want. You ask the people you know from “real life” to declare publicly that they’re willing to be associated with you, and then you either wait around for something to happen, or you get assertive, depending on your personality. If you choose the latter option, chances are, you browse other members’ profiles, check out their favorite TV shows and music, their pictures, the comments their friends have posted to their siteand if you like what you see, you have another couple of options open to you.
If you’d like to know more about this person than is contained within a few blurbs on the screen, you send a message to say hi and to try and get a conversation going. If, on the other hand, you don’t feel that such a time-intensive step is necessary, you just up and invite that person to be your friend. In this case, you ask a complete stranger to agree publicly to link himself, and all that goes along with him, to you, and all the accompanying baggage that you carry. Somehow, this action is not thought to be as creepy as mailing a personal letter of devotion to a celebrity.
Even if you find something overly hasty about this process of instant and ill-informed amity, though, and refrain from immediate e-bonding with avatars, there will always be some stranger who pops up out of the blue and requests your friendship. The lack of an introductory message in this instance is perhaps less disturbing than the fact that this type of individual often doesn’t even appear to have looked at your profile. So, for example, when a self-proclaimed redneck (and Proud! Kiss my red white & blue ass, terrorists!) solicits the friendship of a Code Pink organizer who enjoys dancing with her coven in Berkeley, you have to wonder what’s going on. It gets even more puzzling, though, because often, you don’t even have that minimal information to guide you; sometimes, potential pals ask you to join up on their team without even allowing you to view their profiles or pictures. In other words, you are asked to claim these unknowns as friends before you’re granted the privilege of knowing anything about them.
And then, for some old-fashioned curmudgeons, a strange thing often ensues out of what should be a ridiculously easy dilemma: instead of officially declining the friend request KrazEE8s has made, you become so anxious about not hurting this person’s feelings that, in spite of being ignorant even of hisor her?true identity that you just ignore the request, hoping that KrazeEE8s will soon forget about having contacted you.
Odds are, however, that were a stranger to come up to you in a public place and ask you to be her friend, you’d pack up and move away in a slightly creeped-out fashion. When the situation happens online, though, why does such a presumptuous approach suddenly become, if not welcome, at least socially acceptable? I’ll wager that it’s got something to do with the safety of the entire process. In spite of the much-discussed dangers of placing ourselves under public scrutiny, when it comes to the work and investment required of an online networking relationship, the risks just can’t compete with those required in the physical realm.
Consider the very un-anonymous peril that someone in the flesh takes when introducing herself to a stranger. If things go well, she’s passed the first of many hurdles; more work lies ahead in order to convince the object of her interest that she’s worthy of sustained attention, of becoming and remaining a “friend.” If rejected, however, she’s markedvisiblyand there’s really no satisfactory remedy to getting out of the situation; leaving will point up her shame and weakness; hanging around will prove that she’s even more socially inept than she demonstrated in her initial approach. The whole prospect is scary. If you don’t have to see the expression on another person’s face, though, whether you’ve been accepted or rejected, well then, one level of anxiety, at least, has been removed.
And then break-ups, never easy to manage, are so easy in the virtual universe that, technically, they don’t really have to occur. If you’re no longer satisfied with your friend, well, just remove him from your friends’ list; there’s no need to inform him that the relationship is over. Unless he happens to scroll carefully through his 300 friends, in fact, he may not even notice you’re gone. And if you’re overwhelmed with the developments that could ensue even from that action, don’t worry; you can just block your ex-pal from contacting you. Easy, clean, no explanation required.
The problem here is that friendship, at least as we’ve experienced it over the last few millienniain the fleshrequires communication and commitmentnot only to respect a friend enough to tell her if you need to go your separate ways, but to be actively involved in her life, throughout the duration of that relationship. Isn’t there some sort of understanding that the two of you will see each other through good and bad, put up with each others’ complaints and relationship troubles and bouts of depression, will attend a concert one of you really doesn’t want to attend? Doesn’t friendship involve, in addition to good times together and common interests, risk and disappointment and accountability, misunderstandings and post-argument reconciliation and a resulting understanding and valuing of each other that are stronger than they were before?
I’m not claiming that good discussion, personal growth, and, dare I say it, lasting friendships, do not or cannot happen on Facebook. I do, however, wonder how this commitment-free realm of existence affects the manner in which we behave in the “real” world, especially the ways in which it shapes our ability, not only to understand and interact with those closest to us, but with people in generalmaybe even our capacity to understand ourselves. It takes something much more complex than a glowing screen of words to help us appreciate the intricacy and nuance that are part of the human experienceand so, to assist us in becoming mature, thoughtful individuals.
Lists of hobbies and favorite music are simply not enough to know a person, and don’t even begin to allow you to describe yourself to others. Heck, Charles Manson might have loved, loved, loved the Beatles just as much as any of their self-proclaimed biggest fans. I’m guessing, thoughhopingthat his physical presenceincluding the quirks that were only perceivable when you stood next to himwould dissuade most people from pursuing an acquaintance, much less friendship, with him. It seems, though, that on these sites of free information exchange, friends are constituted by the facts you know about them; realizing that they like the same movies you do, and prefer green to red, must mean that, were you to meet in the real world, you’d get on swimmingly.
I’m not advocating turning the clock back to rotary phones and card catalogues. And the phenomenon I describe is hardly the most serious social ill we face. Maybe, though, it could warrant a small mention in the lists of things to keep in mind as we move on in our quest for the best of all possible worlds. Because if this trend starts to influence how we treat our “traditional” palsif we don’t have toor worse, don’t want toconnect with other human beings on any sort of profound level, the implications could be terrifying. It’s bad enough to be lonely, or to feel misunderstood, or to misinterpret what another is saying. Becoming accustomed, though, to treating friends as if they were both disposable and easily replaceable makes me wonder with how much less concern we would begin to treat strangers or enemies. Because if our friends don’t matter that much, then those who don’t share our interests or our opinions begin to matter even less. And in a world where we already take so little account of the poor and the marginalized, stopping in our tracks and asking ourselves what friendship means to us might just keep us from expanding that realm of undesirables who are already so unjustly treated. One would hope, too, that it would even lead us to talk to those we’ve eliminated from our consciousnessbecause even those who look and think differently than we do mightamazing suggestion!have much more to offer us than we ever thought possible. That recognition, though, will require a little more than an exchange of favorite TV shows and flattering pictures.
I’m not asking us all, then, to ditch Facebook and the entertainment we might be able to find there. At the very least, though, demand of the people you meet in this new-fangled community something more than a soundbite or a catch phraseat least before you decide to become friends.