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Friendship in the Facebook era

Posted on 04 Oct 2011 in Black Forest Ramblings | 0 comments

When I recently met my pen pal of 20 years from Australia we suddently realized that even though we had kept in touch Facebook had definitely changed the kind of friendship we had, and not in a good way. However, we needed to actually have a face-to-face conversation and realize how well we got along in real life before realizing the impact of Facebook on our lives.
Friendship is very important to most people because we are social beings who need people to spend time with. For me, friendship is important but I prefer having only a handful but real friends instead of a lot of friends who just never happen to be around when I need them.

Other than being there when I need them (with “being there” meaning not only supporting me no matter what I do even if they think I do the wrong thing but also realizing when I need someone to cheer me up, listen to me, give me a hug) my definition of friendship includes

  • having actual conversations that go beyond the exchange of shallow words
  • being able to trust the person no matter what
  • being able to rely on my friend
  • not having to question their honesty or their friendship, not even when there are reasons to doubt
  • seeing each other at least a few times a year if possible, i.e. if there aren’t 10.000 km between you, and even then it depends on the character of the friendship you share…
  • showing you care about and think of each other (e.g. by sending a text, a short email or call for a few minutes even when you’re really busy)
  • understanding each other and being able to continue each other’s sentences / saying and thinking the same things at the same time
My dear and wise teacher Benjamin Tong once left me a comment in another post on friendship that I wrote more than two years ago. It read like this:

A real friend is someone who makes no demands and has zero expectations of you. None whatsoever. Such a person never prefaces a statement with “No friend of mine would be …” (fill in the blank: eg., seen with someone like who you were with the other day; eg., forgetful of my birthday; etc., etc.) If anything, a real friend encourages you to always be the best of who or what you are. And s/he will always be standing by you, especially in an hour of need. Mature friendships are rare. Lastly, one real friend is better than 100 would-be friends. Wha’d’y’think?

I absolutely shared his opinion back then as I do now. Friendship is not about expectations and not necessarily about remembering birthdays. Of course it hurts a little when people who are not your friends remember your birthday while your real friends don’t but then I have my cell phone remind me of certain birthdays I would otherwise forget, not everybody has a good memory of dates (I guess those are the people cell phone calendar reminders were made for but not all of them know how to use them) and even my brother has forgotten or didn’t have time to call me on my birthday once or twice in thirty years.
Neither is being a friend necessarily determined by how much you actually know about their lives, their daily routines, etc. Knowing someone doesn’t have to include every detail of their lives so much as knowing their soul. Of course, it is debatable how much a friend should tell you about his life in order to show you they want you to be part of their lives, but on the other hand, there are people who I don’t even like but whose daily routines I know a lot about just because they tell everyone what they’re up to and they do it in such a loud way you cannot help but overhear and there are friends I hardly know anything about but who I feel closer to than to any other human being.

So I guess, I would amend my definition of a friend by saying that in order to consider someone as one I will
  • feel good around them
  • feel comfortable with them touching me (vs. simply not minding it or hating it)
  • feel like I can be myself around them without having to wear the mask we usually wear in society to protect ourselves from the people who use every weakness they can spot against us
  • always know what to talk about when I talk to them (i.e. not struggling for finding an adequate topic of conversation)
  • not feel awkward when I see them again after a longer period of time but rather as if only a few hours had passed since our last goodbye
  • feel “at home” when I am with them (yes, home can be a person!)
  • just feel the friendship (according to my definition of the term) is mutual even though it may look different to people outside
  • tell them how I feel even though they might not be the type to put their feelings in words
Okay, so far, so good. I have actually always had this definition of friendship although I admit it has evolved over time and due to a lot of people I thought were friends but turned out to be only people I shared a certain period of my life with. So I guess the last point I would add to my definition of “real friendship” is
  • being (or at least wanting to be) part of each other’s lives over an extended and yet undefined period of time.
So, until I was about 18 there were only a few ways to keep up friendships: seeing each other, talking on the phone, sending letters. This limited the number of friends already by the mere fact that you were unable to keep in touch with more than just the few people you really cared about. Usually, at least two of these three ways were used to keep up friendships.
With the arrival of the Internet, things didn’t change a lot at first. Maybe you switched from letters to emails because they were easier to send and didn’t take a week to arrive at their destination. When cell phones became more popular sometimes you sent a text rather than call someone, but you still made clear that the person was important and you usually still called them every once in a while.
A few years later the ever-growing Internet added instant messaging and Skype to its services. Instant messaging might have increasingly replaced emails and letters because you could actually have conversations instead of sending someone a monolog. So chat was basically a way of communication that was pretty close to a real conversation, even though you typed what you would usually say and – at first – you couldn’t see each other. Skype changed this by adding the video-feature and speech-to-speech conversations to the repertoire.
However, things quickly changed with the growing popularity of social networking sites. Even before Facebook you could maintain loose ties with more friends on Friendster, for example, because you could write a blog that everybody could read. Nevertheless, although Friendster never really had that huge success Facebook has had over the years, already there what you told your “friends” was less personal – unless you were a very outgoing person wanting everyone to know about your last date, etc. Despite the fact that you did spend quite some time updating your Friendster profile for everyone to read about your exciting life, you still kept writing to, seeing or calling certain people because not everybody wanted to be on Friendster.
Then came Facebook, and everything changed. Don’t get me wrong, I love Facebook and wouldn’t want to be without it for even a second, but it has definitely changed the way we interact with people and it has also made it harder for real friendships to develop, exist and survive. In the Facebook era you can have thousands of friends to whom you can show the pictures of your last night out, your last vacation, your new kitten and what not. Usually, when you meet someone new you’ll immediately look them up on Facebook and add them to your friends. Pre-Facebook when you met someone you would actually try to call the person and see them to get to know them better. If you didn’t make that effort it was immediately clear this beginning friendship wouldn’t have a chance of surviving.
As Facebook became more and more popular however, it seems to me that since you can see status updates (so you supposedly know how the people you “friended” feel, what they’re up to, etc.), photos of supposedly important moments of their lives, and there’s the possibility of chatting with them on Facebook, (late-night) telephone calls and actual meetings have become obsolete for some people. They think they know you just because they can read your status updates, all the while forgetting that a) I only let them see what I want and b) because many people might be able to see my updates I might not tell the whole truth, i.e. I am wearing the mask I am wearing every day to protect myself in real life, too. The whole truth, however, is the truth they would only find out if they called me despite seeing what happens on my wall and which they will care finding out about if they are real friends.
Of course, chatting for hours in the middle of the night can be fun, too, and you can actually tell your friends whatever you would not post for everyone to see, and it is also true that sometimes there are things that are easier to write than to say. Nevertheless, having an actual conversation, hearing your friend’s voice (on the phone or on Skype), seeing them (virtually or in real life) cannot be completely replaced by a virtual, voice-less mode of conversation if you really want to get to know someone (which would of course require you to realize you don’t get to know anyone in the virtual world and at the same time to really want to get to know the person vs. saying you do without really meaning it). Moreover, the joy of getting a phone call by someone who you care a lot about can never be replaced by having a chat window popping up because someone saw you online and felt like talking to you (maybe even while surfing the net or working at the same time).
To cut a long story short, in my opinion, Facebook is great to stay in touch – even for friends – but it easily gives you the impression of knowing someone just because you see what they post, comment on or like. In other words, real friendship is replaced by an illusion of friendship if you don’t make sure that the people you really care about are not just Facebook friends. I mean, how many of your Facebook friends “react” to your status updates with “lol”, “oh really?” and “awwwwww, *hug*” thus pretending to care but, in reality, they couldn’t care less about something funny that happened to you or the fact that you’re sad. And if you go one step further, how often do the people you consider to be your friends actually not react to your postings whereas other people you hardly know do?
Maybe they don’t react because there are so many status updates every hour that they just don’t notice yours, or they want to show you they care by not reacting, thus making a statement by refusing to tune in on what people you hardly know comment on or like because they think that you would call them if you really wanted them to know about what is happening (with all the background information necessary so they won’t get the wrong impressions, for instance when you tell people you’re travelling here and there for fun whereas you just told your friend you didn’t have time or money to come see them). In short, they might show they care about you by not reacting at all in order to make clear they don’t want to be one of your Facebook-groupies.
It is then that you should pick up the phone and call (or meet) your real life friends to tell them about what happened because it is them who really care. And by doing so you will show them you care about them knowing all about it, that you care about them as a friend, that you want their shoulder to cry on if necessary, their support no matter what or just having a good time laughing or doing something else together.
I think you should never forget that a real friendship cannot survive in the virtual world unless you make up your mind and make a little effort to show people you care and to let them get to know you. This is true for “normal” friendships and “undefinable” friendships alike. Don’t buy into the illusion of friendship Facebook creates (and will probably promote even more so with the new timeline feature) but do something before it’s too late, before what used to be or could have become your friend will have put you in the category “only looking for Facebook friends and not interested in any real friendship anyways, so not worth making an effort for”.
Go out there and talk to the people who have a place in your heart and you will realize it is sometimes so much nicer to actually hear their voice, see them, be able to be physically close to them and not just in your imagination. This doesn’t have to mean you always have to call them, of course you can still chat with them online, send them text messages to show you care about them even though you might be busy, etc. However, make sure they know how much more than a Facebook friend they mean to you because otherwise you might end up with a lot of Facebook friends and lose the few people who could have been your real friends forever. And no matter how unimportant real friendship might seem in today’s world, you should always ask yourself who you would like to have in your life in 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, who you wouldn’t want to miss, and then you should do something so they still will be there, so you won’t find yourself sitting somewhere in 20 years, missing that very person you forgot to call or see once to often.
Which is why I definitely will go back to writing emails and start using Skype more extensively to maintain the friendship I have with my Australian friend who – I realized – understands me way better in many ways than others do (which doesn’t necessarily mean she thinks that what I do is always right) even though we have spent only a few days together after having written to each other (and later just followed each other on Facebook) for 20 years.
And I do hope that those rare people I consider my real friends will realize sooner or later (if they haven’t already) that it takes more than just a chat here and there, the few nice words you think are expected of you, sticking to the modes of conversation that you have grown used to but that you actually need to surprise your friend here and there with an actual phone call, an unexpected rendez-vous, a little message you leave on Facebook or on their instant messenger. And if you do you will be rewarded by actually getting to know the person, making them happy because you show you care and want to be part of their lives in some way and that you’re honest even though it might look different from the outside because Facebook wallposts and status updates will never reflect 100% who you are.
PS: To all those out there who just realized that they might not fall into the category of “real friends” for me, don’t worry: I still care about you, because otherwise you wouldn’t be in my friendslist, and I do want to know what’s new with you. However, I also know that I wouldn’t be the one you’ll come running to if you need to talk either. I guess you just belong to the – also relatively few people – I have crossed paths with for some reason and have cared to keep in touch with without having really spent much time together at all.