Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Friendship and Facebook

The day before we left for our trip last weekend, an old college friend of my wife's "friended" her on Facebook, asking where she lived. Turns out that this old friend lives in Tzfat, a half-hour drive from where we were going, so we ended up spending half of Sunday in Tzfat.

This is a real-life friendship that might have occurred without Facebook. Maybe they would have seen each others' names in the back of some issue of the Reed alumni bulletin. Or they would have met through a more niche version of electronic social networking, such as an online Reed forum, or simply jointly listed in the CC list of an email sent from a mutual friend.

But the odds of reacquainting through Facebook are becoming increasingly high, day by day. When I first started on Facebook, I was the only one of a class of 67 from my high school class. Today there are 10 of us. The rest will probably soon follow, and the real question is why it's taking them so long.

This reacquainting raises many questions for me. I wasn't very popular in high school, being a computer nerd and all. Some of the jocks were downright miserable to me, and their ceaseless tormenting had huge impacts on my personality, negative and positive, throughout my life. One of these jocks is now a friend of a friend on Facebook. 67 people is a pretty small graduating class.

Am I supposed to invite this guy to be my friend? Or respond if he invites me? After all, it's been over twenty-five years; he may be a nice guy, now. Should I begrudge a friendship to an adult for what he did to me as a child? Of course, he may not be any nicer now than he was then. Does that mean he shouldn't be my "friend"?

What is a "friend" on Facebook, anyway? The one word includes spouse, child, friend, neighbor, co-worker, old high school buddy, friend of friend, and guy who looks like he might be interesting to know someday. Some of you probably include strangers among your Facebook "friends", but I felt the need to put a limit somewhere. Luckily for me, I'm old enough and secure enough not to need the count of my Facebook friends as a litmus test for my popularity.

When people say that the nature and meaning of "friend" is changing as a result of the Internet, they're not simply speaking semantics. It's not only that the word "friend" is being used synonymously with "contact". The landscape of friendship is actually shifting.

For example, the unwritten knowledge about friendship is being made explicit: now you designate people as friends, you may even rank them or their qualities. And if you feel like dropping contact, you no longer simply don't return their phone calls; you de-friend them. One woman's friends found out about her breaking off an engagement instantly when her ex-fiance changed their relationship status; Facebook sent a message to all of them that their "relationship status" had changed, with a little broken heart icon.

Many of us expect that we will remain bosom buddies with some of our best friends from high school and college for the rest of our lives, when the sad truth is that we tend to fall out of touch with nearly all of them. Email, forums, and mailing lists didn't change this reality. But Facebook does. You register your high school or college class, and there they all are for the rest of your life. You don't even have to work at it. My generation kind of missed this; we have to "get reacquainted" with our high school classmates. But my children are growing up with no concept of this "reacquaintance" thing of which I speak.

I've always had some friends that I didn't communicate with too often, unless one or the other of us would be visiting the other's city. Now I have a hundred times as many relationships like that. Except that now I may drop an email about something they did or accomplished, or send a funny link, or just "booyah" them on a birthday to let them know that I still care.

And as I said, I limit my Facebook friends to people who I actually know, or have personally met. Yet I still have 120 "friends". Which doesn't include the many other neighbors, co-workers, and past schoolmates that haven't yet registered for Facebook or friended me. That's a damn lot of people, some, or most of them, may even care about me a little. That's an interesting thought in itself.


P.S. Another fine read

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