Saving face(book)

12 March 2007

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.


10 Responses

damian

Very true. Its disgraceful the way we’ve degraded friendship in this way. It’s just attention… hang on, you have sixty? Man. I only have fifty three. Add me. Who-ever you are. I’m sure i met you once.

I only have 30 odd and I accepted X’s invite. Clearly, I am a friendship-whore but sadly an unsuccessful one. I need to make myself a bi-sexual, looking-for-fun Adonis. That will get me the d/chicks…

Just checked my facebook thing and found that I only have 37 friends, a couple of whom I don’t actually know. I thought I was doing ok, but have seen lots of undergraduates in the university with 200+ friends, which is a little bit rediculous. Thankfully my status as a postgrad allows me to feel aloof and detatched from all this frivolity.

I know I only joined last night, but I’ve only got 12. I’m going to cry.

The other odd thing about Facebook – and I guess MySpace as well, and Friendster back when it sort-of worked – is that it somehow plays on the anxiety that not being on it at all will seem antisocial in itself. It’s only a very, very minor anxiety, sure, but then it’s only a very minor step you need to take to correct it – so at some point, if you know that a certain critical mass of your friends are on it, then you feel oddly compelled to join too.

Same reason people go to parties, even though they know they’ll be worried about not knowing anyone there and being Johnny No-Mates all night, I suppose.

Facebook, by having just one level of Friend, does at least make the “are they really a friend” question obvious – what always struck me about the “six degrees” was its essential uselessness. Within just two or three degrees of separation, you were overwhelmed by people you had nothing in common with, and who quite frankly looked like total dicktards. That’s where the antisocial thing could come in useful – as you mark down people you don’t like or don’t want to know, it learns your tastes, and so actually can serve the purpose of managing your social network much better.

A sort of Amazon-style “People who thought Jeremy was a twat also wanted to avoid…” feature, is what I mean.

Fin

But, but… why does it matter? Why? What if you have millions of friends online, but sit on your own drinking Bombardier and doing the Express crossword in the evenings? Trying to get more online friends strikes me as being like a 2CV race. Even if you win, you still look like a twat with too much time on their hands.

I have only 9 friends. And that includes my stamp collection.

Only 60? And you’ve been on it for a couple of weeks. I’ve only got 31 friends, and I’ve been on Facebook for at least a year.

Mind you, I am not just socially inept, oh no! It’s just that I don’t treat the ‘friends’ counter as a gameshow score. That’s my excuse anyway.

Well, I have “only 60″ compared to the 200+ that some people whose profiles I have seen have. And the person I didn’t want to add as a friend has over a 100, so there is the “If he can get 100+, why can’t I?” It’s classic friendlist anxiety and nothing more.

Well I’ll be adding you to help make us both feel a little bit better.

…unless I’m a prick like your school friend. (I don’t think Facebook has an option to add a ‘misc’.)

I think you can bugger about with the privacy settings so that not all of your ‘friends’ have the same access to information about you, if that’s of any comfort.

Some dude from my primary school tried to add me. Had no idea who he was, really, so wrote to ask. He said he remembered me as the dude with the permanent cold.

Needless to say, that tool got denied.

That said, I’ve been generally happy to add anyone I remember. As Tony Blair once said to Catherine Tate, “I’m not bothered.”