Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Friend" Is the New "Acquaintance"

I joined Facebook last weekend, after resisting for quite some time, mainly to re-establish contact with people I'd lost touch with, something it's very effective for. But that's it. One-to-one interpersonal communication. I won't be updating my "wall" with the minutia of my daily existence.

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.

19 Comments:

Blogger Thomas said...

I do think you're blowing this out of proportion. In face-to-face life, people's individual assessments of what constitutes a "friend" cover a wide range. For some the term is an honorific to be awarded only sparingly, for others any casual acquaintance is a "friend." On Facebook, you can have hundreds of "friends" and ignore all but a handful most of the time. The use of the word itself in its most casual sense is unlikely, in my opinion, to lead people to devalue the meaningful bonds they have with others outside of the shallow (if enjoyable) world of Internet socializing.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Sergio said...

>>Perhaps I'm blowing this out of proportion, <<

Indeed

12:15 PM  
Blogger jeremy said...

I don't think devaluation is quite the right concept, i think transvaluation is likely a better fit. The idea is less that friends are becoming lesser, at least to me, but that friends are becoming different. I don't think friends refers to the the people with 500, nor even most of my facebook friends at 300, but there are friends in there. There are also old neighbors, current colleagues, etc. etc. Just a mish-mash of things in the 'friends' category.

I do think you hit on something significant though. I think there is more of an attachment to 'friends', emotive, psychological, social, communal, that facebook is playing off of in order to get people to form such links. I think they are trying to commodify relationships and to encourage people to call more types of relationships friends, but I don't think everyone is always treating their terms as concrete determinants of action. People don't all look at it as a 'friends' only category, just a 'catch as catch can' category. It has become for some a game, for others... less so. We'll see what happens in the end.

As for twitter/fb... mine are attached, i use twitter to post to facebook, but the groups are different to some extent. I think it might be interesting to trace out some of the differences, but in the end, i think twitter does one thing and fb does many things. Now granted twitter does all sorts of one thing, but it doesn't do groups, etc. like facebook. Those things for twitter are all second party objects

4:24 PM  
Blogger ghostrancedance said...

Your point about the word "friend" being devalued is a good one. It's not only on Facebook though. I hear people say "my friend" or "my best friend" quite often and - to me - they're referring to an acquaintance.

Now I'm feeling somewhat guilty over sending you a list of 20 possible "friends" on FB. :-D ;-)


Bill Barton
aka ghostrancedance (Google blogger handle - I don't have an active blog but that's another story...)

11:19 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

One indication that FB users understand perfectly well that "friend" is a Facebook technical term, rather than a magic spell to change their assumptions about human society, is the verbing of the word. Only on Facebook do you friend someone rather than befriending them; only on Facebook do you defriend someone instead of breaking off relations with them, no longer seeing very much of them, refusing to speak to that son of a bitch after what he did, etc. The spontaneous adoption of this computer-app-like vocabulary implies a distinction in the minds of users between Facebook "friendship," a characteristic of how the site works, and friendship per se.

3:06 AM  
Blogger Moandji Ezana said...

I decline a lot of requests, and even remove people from my friend list, precisely because I want FB to be a relatively intimate circle. In the example you give of the "forgotten school-mate", I'd decline without a second thought. I also decline business contacts (that's what LinkedIn is for). In fact, at the end you describe exactly why I like to keep my FB friend circle tight. The minutiae of relative strangers isn't totally uninteresting, but it's worth a lot less to me than the minutiae of close friends.

I think your assessment of FB and Twitter is skewed by your deep involvement with words. These services have turned out to be more for sharing (links, photos, videos, news, jokes, thoughts, updates) than for "Publishing" (I'm leaving aside the very interesting tech side of Twitter-as-platform). So, as a tool for "sharing stuff with your friends" it really beats anything we had before.

I use Twitter differently, because it is public by default, whereas FB is private by default: mostly to keep up with thought leaders in my profession. There's less commitment to reading every single thing, especially as relationships are one-sided, rather than mutual as on FB. A lot of the value comes from following the links a Tim O'Reilly shares, being notified of a blog post, etc. Sometimes someone will compose an interesting original tweet, but that's far from being the principal use case.

4:39 AM  
Anonymous Robin said...

I can give you a Human Resources perspective and tell you that Facebook and Twitter have both spilled over into the workplace. I don't just mean that people at work check their Facebook page and "tweet" all day long. More importantly, people have started to lose an understanding of what confidentiality is in the workplace. I work in the healthcare field, and we've already terminated two employees for passing along confidential patient information. Both young workers (under the age of 25). If everyone's personal information is public fodder, then how does one understand where the line is and when it is crossed? As you know, I'm on Facebook. It's sort of my personal soapbox on political and social issues (with the occasional Marx Brothers link). One day, when I have the time, I'll start a blog. But, I agree with you. You're not "blowing this out of proportion." True friendships are neither formed nor maintained on Facebook or Twitter. And knowing the minute-by-minute details of someone's day does not make one a friend.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

This was a bore, and I stopped reading it after you said you decline friend requests, which is the sign of a true asshole.

I am no longer your friend.

Can we have lunch next week?

7:06 PM  
Blogger Colleen said...

A few years ago, I met another woman in a class. We sat near one another and often talked after class. One night the professor, speaking to me, referred to "you and your friend." My classmate said, "We don't yet know one another well enough to be friends, but I think we might get to that point." We have, and I value her friendship so much more, knowing it is not bestowed lightly.

So I won't ask to be your Facebook friend, but I will come back to your blog.

9:58 PM  
Blogger freddie said...

I actually sort of love Facebook and Twitter. For me, it's been less about forming or maintaining friendships than being places where I conveniently keep up on news in my industries (film composing and writing). I just learned of a composing competition on Twitter I might never have heard about otherwise.

On the other hand, I think you're right that these sites tend to foster a sense of narcissism and sometimes, stupidity. I shouldn't laugh at people who get fired from jobs from posting on their FB and Twitter accounts, like this guy - http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,22756398-401,00.html - but I do.

12:36 PM  
Blogger June said...

I use FB to spy on my family. One son is there and I get to occasionally see what he's up to - same for my 6 nieces and nephews. They don't write to elderly aunts .. or call ... and now I'm thousands of miles away.

I will have to think about how it affects friendships and just what that term means in today's world.

FB can be a real time waster - I prefer real emails.

2:18 AM  
Anonymous jfo said...

Good post. While on the surface Facebook, MySpace etc, might seem like just another way to waste time, I have found it to be useful on various levels.

1. I actually do using it for socializing and networking. I often find out about cool shows, art openings, etc going on in my area via my friends, and sometimes their friends.
2. I use it to do PR for my fiance's music and various writing endevors.
3. I have obtained everything from a veterinarian recommendation to some job leads just by posting a query on my wall.
4. Most recently, a friend passed away, and her friends and family able to pass on information about memorials, etc Also, stories and pictures were shared, as well as much love an support.

For every silly quiz and survey meme, there are times where true friendship does ring through on social networking sites.

http://beautybadass.blogspot.com

12:34 AM  
Anonymous lfv said...

My thoughts exactly! This is an excellent piece and I loved reading it.

9:16 PM  
OpenID debonairdebacles said...

I don't think you're blowing it out of proportion. When I first joined, I looked forward to actually socializing with some of my long lost high school friends but now it's just an unending streams of "I just ate a bagel" and "wonder what to do for dinner?" type status updates. As such, I don't log onto either Facebook or Twitter as much.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Facebook is annoying on many levels; the terminology -- "friends" rather than "contacts" -- is just one annoyance for me. Still, it can be useful for keeping up with extended family members, and as an editor I really enjoy learning more about what I think of as the members of another extended family: folks who have been published in, or guest-edited for, qarrtsiluni. I've actually invited a couple people to guest-edit based in part on what I learned about them from Facebook. And it turns out to be a pretty good way to keep up with publications and other significant events worth reporting in the qarrtsiluni news blog.

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great read Facebook & Twitter Management

9:52 PM  
Blogger Jean said...

"...But 500 friends and all of a sudden you're popular." This is so true. I believe this makes the socially unskilled feel better about himself.

This was a great read and agree with your entire point of view. Thanks for posting.

9:51 PM  
Anonymous Jazzzoline said...

I pretty feel uncomfortable about the loss of privacy, the loss of deep thinking, the loss of ...
but all this is for the purpose of the common knowledge, the addtion of everyone's mind, as if mind could be added using basic arythmetics. That's what the future will be of.
Knowing that anyone could read, sneak, or use everything I put there, at first openly, forced me to close the doors, one after one, and still I can't just trust the system.
And my son insisting of becoming "my friend", and gets mad when I learn something about him on it ! I'm not you're friend, I'm your mom !
Maybe I'm getting old.
Have you read Egde.org, the annaul question "How the internet changed the way you think ?" There are a few good insights there on the topic.
"Internet makes you think in realtime, actually, you're loosing the real, you're loosing the time."

1:43 PM  
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1:23 AM  

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