Several weeks ago, and to my mild regret, I surrendered and joined Facebook. That said of course, my mild disdain for it was outweighed by the anxiety that I would appear to be Nobby No-Mates so I did create a semi-decent profile, added a photo and sent out friend requests to all my friends currently on it. That is, friends as in people I consider friends in real life; people who I would keep in (semi-)regular contact with, be happy to meet up with, and to some degree feel comfortable about confiding personal things to.
But Facebook has two devilish features; first, there is no sliding scale – you can’t differentiate between people you may be acquaintances of, those who you knew a bit at school or university but have never spoken too since, or people you can’t go more than a day without feeling like you’ve lost touch. Second is a quality that is best called stalkiness – the fact you see nearly everything your friends do on the network by default, and they can see what you do too (of course, these are adjustable but who does that?)
As a result, my friends’ Facebook friends – in many cases, just mere acquaintances – saw that I was now a member. In the spirit of niceness they added me as a friend, and in the spirit of friendliness I reciprocated by approving the request. The end result is that some people I have named as friends are just acquaintances from university and nothing more. That may sound rather, er, unfriendly, especially if one of you is reading this now…. but I would like to stress that I find them all totally agreeable and lovely people, we got on well at university and if I bumped into them in the pub one night I would gladly buy them a drink and have a good chat to catch up. But, because we never really bonded at a higher level, I don’t see them now on a regular basis and I have not been in touch for some years, I can’t really call them a friend in the conventional old-fashioned sense of the word. Hope that distinction is clear.
Still, although the word “friend” has become devalued into something approaching “acquaintance” online these days, it’s just semantics. Another word will come along to replace it in time, and I have little doubt that a social network that exclusively caters for for the kind of highly-bonded, close relationships that I regard as friendship will spring up in time, for people like me who are still a bit uneasy about the whole thing. So it’s not a bad thing, in itself.
Or so I thought. Until yesterday, when the inevitable happened – someone I could never, ever consider as a friend sent me a friend request. It was someone from school, who I never ever got on with at the time; we had very little in common and truth be told, at the time I thought he was a prick. It’s been nine years since we left school, and we have not exchanged a word in that time. He may have changed since then, but judging from his Facebook profile and his rather dull blog, I don’t think I’d find him that agreeable now either. There is no way I could consider him a friend in even the watered-down Facebook sense of the word, and yet, I felt really guilty about refusing his request. It just felt, well, rude.
After much agonising (and discussion with some old actual friends from school), I decided that honesty was the best policy: he was never my friend, probably never will be and it would be deceitful to pretend otherwise, even in the name of civility. So I declined the request. And while I don’t feel particularly troubled about that decision (it was the right thing to do) it left me feeling – the word friendship really is a lot hollower to a lot of people. Do they ever think about it? In a world where anyone can be your friend, where does that leave you as an individual? Establishing links with people becomes pretty worthless if you can’t also cut yourselves off from them.
The only solution I think is an antisocial functionality as part of a social network. And I don’t mean antisocial as in Isolatr, which is strictly speaking asocial, but an actually mean-spirited, rude and nasty capability; the means to tag that you dislike someone and make it clear you would not prefer to be in their company for whatever reason (“Owes me money”, “Cheated on me with someone else”, “Paid for peerages with cash”). A bit of healthy cynicism is what’s needed to stop this giant love-in, or else it will inevitably implode.
NB That said, I only have 60 friends on my profile at the moment, so please add me if you haven’t already, ‘cos I’m feeling a bit inadequate.