Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How Facebook Has Transformed The Art Of The "Friendship"

Since when did friendships become so convoluted?  It seems that at some point in the recent past, the very definition of the word "friendship" was changed, without the public's knowledge, perhaps forever.  Or maybe changed is too soft a word.  Disfigured seems to be more appropriate.  And maybe "without the public's knowledge" should be replaced with "with mass silent complicity."

At some point in the recent past, we became an oversensitive bunch who allowed the very nature of our relationships and interactions with people to be skewered and mutilated by a "Big Brother"-esque entity that watches over our every conversation and status update.

That point was 2004 and the douchebag who ruined it all was (and is) Mark Zuckerberg (Hey!  I didn't have to go see "Social Network" to know that either!  GOLD STAR FOR THE BLOGGER!!!  (I'm pretty sure that John was so overwhelmed with his visions of dragons and diadems that he missed this movie as either a surefire sign of the End of Days or the Complete Degradation of Humanity.  One or the other.))

Seriously though, since people started joining the Facebook bandwagon, the very nature and art of friendships have been unutterably and perhaps irrevocably altered.  When I was a kid (and when my parents were kids, and their parents, and their parents), friendship was a simple but beautiful thing indeed.  Most of them began in elementary school and in the most innocent of ways; the basis back then could have been as simple as "so-and-so has crayons...but so-and-so has the box of 64 crayons--the one that has the new colors in it!!!" or as deeply emotional as "hey that kid looks lonely, maybe I should go over and ask him if he wants to play."  (I won't even get into the fact that, statistically, nowadays, the former is probably far more frequent in its occurrence than the latter.) 

Over your first few years of school (if you are fortunate enough to remain in the same place for the duration), you begin to develop (ideally) more meaningful relationships with some of your classmates.  Friends are promoted to best-friend status or find themselves fading back into the cloud of acquaintanceship (that sounds medieval, doesn't it?  "I am acquaintanced to the blacksmith up the street.")  Time flows ever forward and the lines of friendship blur and reshape themselves as people come and go in your life.  If you're lucky (like I have been, thankfully) you reach adulthood having managed to pick up a few loyal and loving people along the way who stick with you for the duration of life's journey (the friends "for a reason" and not just a season or a moment).

In the past, people would come and go...and that was okay!  There was rarely any drama with the departure of a friend--at least in comparison with what goes on today.  At the best, you and a friend drifted apart naturally, mutually, and amicably; you didn't even realize that you hadn't hung out with them all summer until you see them in school in September...and you realize right away that whatever you two had had is probably lost to the stains of time forever...and that's okay!  At the worst, though, you find that only one of you has drifted away while one person clutches desperately at the fading phantasm of your friendship; I often found myself reaching out, unrequited, and not understanding why I was the only one who was trying to keep the friendship alive.  The truth was that I just didn't want to admit that it had died long before that point and I had refused simply to admit it.  Maybe it was the determination that I will speak about below...or maybe it was just that true friendships, I mean really good ones were so hard to come by and, once I had one, I didn't want to let it go.  Either way, moving on and dealing with the loss of people from your life was just something you did.  It never got any easier but you did it anyway...because you had to; somewhere along the way, though, that changed (2004 for the short-term-memory-loss-people.)

I remember the first time that I had ever heard the term "Facebook."  It was, indeed, 2004, and I was sitting in what we called "The Old Lounge" at Baruch.  Heather was by one of the computer terminals and she was telling me that I should sign up for an account.  Dan and Alan both had one and she really wanted me to come on board.  At first, I refused.  I refused for an impressive month or two as I watched everyone around me jump on the bandwagon.  You see--I had already fallen for the "join this website that everyone else is joining" trick.  Twice.  It started with Xanga.  I don't remember how that one started (though I remember signing up first back in 2000 for an account solely to respond to a suicidal post a friend of mine had made and then again sometime in 2002 or 2003) but I know I liked the site and was happy.  Then Myspace appeared in 2003 and I was recruited for that one.  I didn't like it and was content simply to stick with my Xanga page.  Then came '04 and the Facebook revolution.

Eventually, like everyone else, I caved and signed up for an account.  For whatever reason, I liked it more than Myspace (the only account of the three to be completely dissolved) and I stuck with it.  I think it was the fact that it had a more sophisticated feel to it than Myspace and it allowed me to get in touch with a bunch of people that I had not spoken to for more than ten years (in some cases).  Of course, there was also the unspoken aspect that appealed to me: the fact that, at the time, it served as a natural filter of sorts for keeping unwanted people out.  There was a snobbery involved with the genesis of Facebook: it was for "college educated" folks only.  This meant, the kid that picked on you in Junior High who coincidentally couldn't read or write to save his life probably never made it to college and thus meant that you'd never have to worry about getting that friend request.  (Ironically enough, everything changed (ALL HAIL THE ALMIGHTY LORD "$") and that kid did send that friend request to me.  *CLICK* Denied!)

(By the way--I love that I'm sitting here denouncing Facebook for fucking up the social landscape, for its snobbery, and for kowtowing to the almighty dollar...on a blog...eating a bowl of Frankenberry cereal for breakfast.  It seems tragically sad and silly at the same time.  Maybe a little ridiculous.  Nevermind--I'm not getting off at the "existentialist tangent" exit.)

Anyway, so, again, much like everyone else, I found myself getting caught up in the excitement of reconnecting with people that I had lost touch with or hadn't seen for quite some time.  I reached out to all of those people who I had gone to elementary school with--the ones who I, like everyone else, had imbued with the sentimentality and innocence of youth--placing them on a pedestal that marked the "Golden Age" of my life--or who had held a prominent place in my life as an early youth, and struck up a conversation that had laid dormant for upwards of twenty years (or that had never even begun, in some cases)...but then, over time, I began to run out of people that I had genuinely had friendships with...and then it started.  I started to look for people that I "used to talk to."  Then it was people that "I used to know" (mostly friends of friends).  And then finally, "Let's flip through the yearbook and look for familiar faces!"

I'll admit it: I was a friend-whore for a time.  The only two things I can say in my defense are 1) I recognized it fairly quickly and managed to put the kibosh on it before it got out of hand, and 2) everyone ELSE was doing it!  I stopped actively seeking friend requests from people when I realized that I didn't even speak to half of the people that I had already friended.  And I suppose this is a great place to start my argument:

Facebook has fucked up friendships.

Or we at least need to add a new, official, designation of "Facebook Friend," that neither connotes or denotes anything related to actual, physical, meaningful friendship.  How can we define this?  Simply as the following: a "Facebook Friend" is a person with whom the primary (or sole) milieu for communication is one or both of our walls, photo albums, or status updates.  How can we identify such people?


(I'm summoning my inner Jeff Foxworthy here.)

You might be a "Facebook Friend" if...

1) We are "friends" on Facebook despite having never met or spoken in person. Ever.

2) We live in the same city, have "known" each other for more than a year, speak frequently on Facebook...and have never physically spent any time together.

3) We have never emailed, texted, or spoken to each other on the phone as our only means of communicating is "commenting" and "liking" things on each other's Facebook page.

*4) Our only communication, on an annual basis, is a "Happy Birthday!" post when the Angel of Facebook tells us it is time, and, MAYBE, a Merry Christmas or Happy New Year.

Number four gets an asterisk because it serves as a segue to and foundation for the rest of my argument.  A few months ago, I had reached a social nadir of sorts.  Many of my most treasured friendships were in varying states of disrepair and, in a few cases, irreparability.  In a few of the latter cases, I needed the closure of removing those people from my life completely.  We weren't speaking any more and it was clear that we never would again.  All that remained was the severing of our virtual ties...and that's when the problem started.  I told Heather that I was going to "end" the "friendships" with these people so that I could move on and be done with it all.


I can picture my wife's voice right now as I sit and type: 

"Can't you just leave it alone and just hide them?  Why do you have to remove them completely?"

My wife and I are similar in ways I never dreamed possible...but we are also different on a few fundamental levels.  Heather is arguably the kindest, most compassionate person I have ever met.  She puts people ahead of herself and makes personal sacrifices for the sake of others to a degree that I have seen only once before in my life.  This is a wonderful trait but it also has its drawbacks.  A consequence of Heather's approach to her relationships with people is that she, like me, often finds herself serving as a doormat for people.  Though it bothers me that she will let herself be treated the way that she does sometimes, I know that it is not out of any form or sign of weakness.  Though she might suffer in silence when she is mistreated, she has an equal and opposite reaction when someone she cares about is the one being abused.  She transforms herself and reveals a fearless side that is vociferous and passionate in its defense of her loved ones.  I have been the fortunate recipient of this love and care on many occasions and it is something that, after nearly ten years together, I still marvel at. 

Still, though, there is a fundamental difference between us when it comes to how we interact with people.  Said difference is not so much that we render ourselves as doormats but rather how we react to said doormatting.  Heather will turn her cheek more times than I ever could...but it's sometimes as much to turn a blind eye to the situation as it is out of forgiveness or general altruism; I can't do that.  I think it's in our astrological natures.  She is a Libra--balanced, fair, always looking out for the well-being of others (often over her own welfare); I am an Aries--fiery, impulsive, passionately defensive of myself and others but quick to violent emotional reactions.  Heather is content (and able, which I believe is the more salient and operative word) simply to ignore the people who hurt her, particularly when it comes to Facebook.  She has a tremendously well-developed and disciplined mind that can distance itself from her emotions; I'm pretty much the exact opposite.  I become like a dog with a bone when it comes to emotional situations: I gnaw at it (or need to gnaw at it) until the marrow is extracted (thus the situation is resolved, one way or another).

I have always hated and been unable to endure a lack of resolution with situations in my life.  Perhaps it's because I'm a musician: I need a return to the tonic note or chord to finish the piece, for better or worse.  As much as my obsession comes from, well, obsession, it is often driven by the fire of determination that I have burning within me; I hope that it is this aspect that my wife recognizes in these situations and that it is something that she respects me for: I take that very same determination into every situation in my life, whether it is a damaged emotional relationship with someone or a pick-up game of basketball.  For some reason, Facebook has given me great grief when it comes to obtaining the resolution (and serenity, in a way) that I seek.  I need closure when it comes to certain relationships and situations--not simply "hiding" someone on a newsfeed.

Now this is a gross oversimplification of the nature of the situation that I faced a few months earlier.  Removing said people from my Facebook friends list might create some backlash, not only for me but for Heather as well.  In her defense, she had a vested interest in what I did because it very well might affect her adversely...so I held off.  And held off.  And held off.  Until finally, I couldn't take it anymore.  I wasn't sleeping because I was obsessing about all of the negative things that had transpired between these people and me.

And then I decided to invoke the Law of the Band-Aid.

I woke up the next morning, turned on the computer, signed into Facebook, and removed them.  Just like that.  (The Law of the Band-Aid says simply, in a difficult situation or a situation that one dreads because it requires a distressing action to be taken, to perform said action as quickly as possible, with the analogue to the Band-Aid being that, when done quickly, it will sting for a moment (and remove a large swath of hair in one shot), but, when done slowly, the pain is drawn out and amplified considerably (thus removing that same large swath of hair...one strand at a time...sloooooowwwwwllly.))  And the most amazing thing happened: I felt better; it was as if some unseen weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  That very night I slept for the first time in, what was at that point, at least three months and possibly five (due not simply to the social circumstances I was in but a multitude of issues not the least of which was the impending arrival of my first child and all of the changes that his arrival would bring.)

Then, something even more amazing happened: absolutely nothing.  There was no backlash, no gnashing of teeth and no plucking of beards.  Nothing. At. All.  I had made the right decision and it had had no adverse affect on Heather (much to my relief).

And then it got me thinking.

If removing someone who I no longer wanted to be friends with on Facebook was so easy...then why was it so hard?  And why didn't I do it with more people that I didn't speak to?

I looked through my list of friends (numbering just over 400 at the time) and was appalled by what I saw.  I felt like I had thrown a house party (with Facebook being the house) and I woke up to find a BUNCH of people I didn't really know (either figuratively or literally) strolling around, eating my chips and drinking my beer and soda (one guy even had the nerve to make brownies!  You know who you are.)  There was one person who, in no uncertain terms, had, maybe sixteen months earlier told me that I was essentially the worst person alive, that she would NEVER have forgiven me for what I had "done" (referencing a nonsense situation that I was having with someone else), and that she didn't think that I deserved to have that other person ever speak to me again.  And then, four months later, the Angel of Facebook told her that it was my special day and there was a "Happy Birthday!" waiting for me on my wall.  We didn't have a single conversation for the rest of 2009 but, unsurprisingly, at the end of March, there was another birthday comment.  Hooray!

A similar circumstance existed with another "friend" who had come away with a bunch of us on our annual cabin trip up north.  After a horrendous experience with this girl, I was again made out to be a monster, accused of a bunch of things (some of which were true, admittedly) and labeled with a slew of characteristics and traits (few of which were true).  After a few months of silence between us, I decided to extend the olive branch and attempt a recovery by calling her on the phone.  Needless to say, nothing ever came of that but a few months later she commented on a picture I posted.  Or maybe it was the announcement of Heather's pregnancy.  I don't remember.  The bottom line was that she refused to speak to me in reality and elected to do so capriciously on Facebook. 

Should I be surprised by the fact that, in all of the time I had "known" her, I had seen her, MAYBE, a total of fifteen times in person?

In both cases it was ABUNDANTLY clear that we were never going to be friends (in a healthy sense) again...and yet, there they were, in front of God and everyone, on my list.  Citing my need for closure, I decided to come up with a set of criteria for who would make the cut and who would be getting the axe.  I think that what influenced me a great deal was an anecdote I had read in the Reader's Digest about this very same issue.  I think it was something about etiquette issues and Facebook friendships.  The advisor said basically that it's up to you to determine who is on your list of friends on Facebook and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, that that should not be the deciding factor in whether or not you remain friends.  In other words, being friends on Facebook should a) not constitute or replace being friends in "real life" nor b) should your actual, physical friendship be contingent upon the Facebook connection.

So I came up with the following list:

If I had never met you--gone.
If we hadn't spoken in the last three-to-five months on Facebook--gone.
If our only Facebook conversations consisted of Happy Birthdays--GONE.

I felt like Edward Scissorhands snipping away at the strands of virtual friendship that were no longer bound to the follicle.  I also felt like the person getting the haircut--feeling myself growing lighter with each falling strand.  The feeling was amazing

But then there was the concern: would there by some sort of backlash?  Would I FINALLY get to see some gnashing of teeth?!

I looked at it this way: if I hadn't spoken to someone in the timeframe noted above or if our conversation consisted only of the birthday wishes...how mad could those people really get?  At the worst, they would send me some nasty message that would just reaffirm my decision.  At the best, they would do nothing.  And in the middle, they would send a friend request.

I shaved down the list from a little over 400 down to 170.  That's almost 250 people.  Here's the breakdown:

To date: zero nasty messages and, at most, five re-requests (a few were mistakes--I had clicked on one person but it removed someone else, so it was probably five actual re-requests, if that).

So now we come to the climax of this argument and the current predicament that I find myself in: what do you do when a real friendship degrades itself to the point of a Facebook Friendship...and then to one that you want to end?  It's undeniably sophomoric to remove people on an emotional whim--to click that tiny x with a heavy hand simply because someone said something about your status or photo that you didn't like...but what if you genuinely have nothing in common with a person that you used to be friends with?  Does that past somehow dictate that you must continue the online charade, ad infinitum?  I always argue that it should never matter how much time you have spent in a relationship with someone when it comes to deciding whether or not to continue that relationship if the amount of time you have shared with that person is the only thing keeping you with them.  I can't believe I just said all of that without a single comma.

Anyway, I understand Heather's point about just hiding the person's newsfeed or simply ignoring them...but, to draw upon another analogy, I liken the situation to a phone call.  Each friendship is like its own individual phone conversation.  Everything is great when both people are talking...but what about when it's only one person speaking?  Or, worse, no one speaking?  I remember those epic emo moments on the phone when I was in high school--it was a surefire way of telling that a relationship was over: you're both sitting with the phone pressed against your ear but no one is saying anything and the only reason you're still on the phone is because neither of you wants to hang up...because hanging up represents that things are over!  But what's the point of staying on the phone if no one is going to speak and there's nothing more to say?

That's the point I was trying to explain to Heather and, myself, I suppose, this morning.  The bottom line, though, is that, when it comes to mortally wounded friendships, if it's dead it's dead; whether you hang up or not is irrelevant--it can't change what is likely a truth that you are refusing to recognize.  Regardless of whether I went to school with these people, worked with them, or knew them in some other capacity or from some other venue...if the bottom line is that there is no future to be had, should I really allow the past to keep them in my present?  In all of the cases, it's not even that something happened and now I want to cut ties with that person.  It's more that we've drifted apart (in each case) and whatever had tied us together or connected us previously is no longer there.  Plus, if we really are "friends," then shouldn't that friendship not be predicated on whether we are connected on a social networking website in the first place?

I know that I will be accused of overthinking things (as I am so often accused of) but I will argue that the true nature of the situation is the very opposite of that--everyone else not thinking enough about the situation (as is so often the case).  Maybe if we all set our priorities straight we would not have so much of our self-esteem and emotions tied up in an evanescent virtual identity that has no bearing on who we really are as people! 

Or maybe not.  Maybe I am overthinking it.  It's definitely one of my character flaws, right along with an oversensitivity that is, at times, unmatched by anyone I know.  With regards to the latter, though, I feel like it is balanced by a forgiving nature and an innate desire to maintain homeostasis in my relationships; it might take very little to get me upset or to hurt my feelings...but it takes even less to set things straight.  And, given a long enough timespan, I will invariably either forget about whatever had happened or find a way to blame myself (and believe that) and then to seek peace betwixt us.  With regards to the former...overthinking things often causes me stress but it also gives me answers and insight that would otherwise remain esoteric.

It seems like such a black and white issue: I don't speak to these people and in order to flush my mental and emotional cache I need to rid myself of them completely.  There's unequivocally no chance that things will be repaired (if they need repairing, likely because they are longstanding issues that have gone addressed but unattended to) or simply that there is no reason or interest in continuing the online friendship.

So why not just click that damnable tiny x and be done with it?

I suppose the answer is:  It's Complicated.

ADDENDUM: I can't help but wonder if it's a sign that the song that I first listened to as I began to write this entry is also the one that's on again now at the end of my writing--a song called "Save Me From Myself" by Vertical Horizon.