"Friend" Is the New "Acquaintance"
Perhaps I'm blowing this out of proportion, but one of my biggest concerns about sites like Facebook and MySpace is the devaluation of the concept of friendship. Why did they have to use that word? Wouldn't "contacts" be more appropriate? Of course, there's nothing about having 500 contacts that will make you feel good about yourself. But 500 friends and all of a sudden you're popular. Except that "friend" now encompasses real friends, casual acquaintances, business contacts, friends of friends, frenemies (a term that's gained traction these days, and which I believe was coined by Jessica Mitford), the kid who teased you in sixth grade, and total strangers.
I let Facebook scan my email address book for matches and added a few of my "real" friends at first. Actually, I don't know why I did. We obviously know how to get in touch with each other. So be it. Then I went looking for a few people I had lost touch with. Some I had lost touch with in recent years due to email changes and others I hadn't been in touch with for over thirty years, like schoolmates. I haven't looked for any girls I had undeclared or unrequited crushes on. But I did contact one guy mainly to tell him how much I envied him for having grown up in a leftist intellectual household. And another classmate who I probably haven't seen in about 40 years I contacted because of our shared grade-school admiration for the radio broadcasts and writings of Jean Shepherd. I really have no reason to be in touch with this guy, though I'm sure he's still a very nice guy, but there's a certain poignancy to that early bond over a racconteur who, I now realize, was a formative influence on me as a writer and storyteller.
Very quickly I started getting requests to add people as friends. I declined several because I figured our current communication links were quite sufficient. A few I declined because our only connection was our shared participation in a public bulletin board, and often our interactions on that board were far from friendly. Still, they wanted to be my friends in Facebook land. And then there were the total strangers.
So-and-so has added you as a friend on Facebook, the subject line of the email read. Who was this person? The name did not ring a bell. I looked at his profile and discovered that he was Facebook friends with two guys I had gone to high school with, and that he attended the same school at the same time. But I didn't remember the name. We couldn't have been friends then, so why should we, all of a sudden, be friends now? To tell the truth, I'm trying to divest myself of friends. What I mean is, by this point in my life I know where the true bonds lie, what the important interpersonal relationships are. I know quite a lot of people, I'm far from shy, and I'm fortunate to have known many fascinating, wonderful people over my fifty-plus years, but I also value my privacy and solitude. I only have quality time for the people who are as important to me as my privacy is.
So here I am, not looking to make new friends, and Facebook keeps suggesting names of people who ought to be my friends. It's like those product recommendations I get from Amazon based on the purchases of others who bought what I just bought. Customers who bought Peter Cherches also bought Elliott Sharp. It's the commodification of friendship. And many people, it seems, are more than happy to collect them all.
A while back I wrote a piece about Twitter, and how I feared its overuse and its length limitations had the potential to further erode the quality of public discourse. Rather than deciding what's worth saying, and thinking about how to say it, thousands and thousands of people are just saying it, in short spurts. Mind you, I have nothing against short spurts; my entire literary career had been devoted to the short spurt. But there's short and there's short. And there's spurt and there's spurt. Anyway, while I was working on my anti-Twitter rant I signed up for an account, so I could test it out. I guess I never deactivated the account, because every once in a while I get an email telling me that somebody wants to be my "follower" on Twitter. If there's anything I need less than more friends it's any followers.
From what I've seen, people tend to use their Facebook walls very much like they way they use Twitter. So now I can see what people I haven't seen in 30 years are doing at this very moment, or what they just finished doing. The kind of little, insignificant things that have significance within the greater context of close personal relationships and private discussions--because two people (or a small group) really care enough about each other to listen to the minutia of each other's lives--are now matters of public record.
Back in the paranoid, science fiction cold war sixties some people feared that our enemies, or our own government, were developing technologies that one day might be able to read our minds. If Twitter tweets and Facebook walls are any indication, we had nothing to fear. It turns out there's precious little on our minds worth reading.