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friendship on Facebook and Myspace has a new meaning on the internet. A friend or an acquaintance can be much the same relationship. Check out the reunion.

Home / Misc  /
Friendships In The Post Internet World

The internet has created a new class of effortless friendship

I joined Facebook largely at the behest of my girlfriend, herself a less-than-active member.  Most of her colleagues at the hotel she works at and the past hotels she's worked at are members.  A month ago we were invited to a going away party for one of her colleagues via Facebook, and we were expected to rsvp the same way.

I was a registered member of Facebook before meeting her, but I never used it.   At that time, my own peers were not early adopters.  It was people fifteen years younger than myself and below (from Generation Y and Z) who became Facebook's initial supporters.  At my girlfriend's urgings, I uploaded a photograph and entered some basic information so that two of us could link profiles as "being in a relationship."

Once I was on, others found me.   The old college physics buddy Brad found me.  My fellow travel adventurer Mike found me.  And a friend dating back to my high school years, Marc, found me.  So did others.  My friend list grew through no active participation on my part.

When Brad, Mike, and Marc first contacted me to invite me to be friends, I was ebullient.  I had thought about all three over the years.  I met Brad days after I arrived at Cornell.  He remains the only person I knew from the day I arrived until the day I graduated.  When I took a year abroad in the UK, he transferred to a university in San Diego.  And when I got back to the U.S., he serendipitously transferred back, and we found ourselves in the same engineering physics department.  After graduation, we went our separate ways.  I tried to look him up several times afterwards, but his surname is too common, and Brad isn't officially his first name. 

Mike I met traveling through Burma in 1994.    We started talking on the flight over and became travel companions the entire time.  When I returned to the United States in 1997, I had waiting for me a wedding invitation from Mike.  There was a Washington state address in the upper lefthand corner of the envelope which did not match the address of his trailer on Lummi Island that I had on file.  Sorting through almost three years of mail, I must've accidentally thrown out that envelope, my only link to Mike.  Mike's surname is one of the ten most common in the English language, and his first name was ranked as the most popular for boys for his birth year and the following thirty odd years, according to the Social Security Administration.  Was it coincidence or fate he married a woman whose first name ranked as the most popular for girls for her birth year? 

Marc's case is different.  His surname, too, is quite popular, but I had some facts about him.  I knew his parents still lived in Cleveland and that he'd married a college sweetheart and moved to Texas, her home state, and was practicing medicine.  I was able to pinpoint the medical practice at which he worked and considered the idea at one time of contacting his office to get back in touch.  He beat me to the punch by contacting me via Facebook. 

  Keep In Touch lyrics

 How many of your 'friends' are really worth staying in touch with?   Keep In Touch

I bring up these three men as examples because they were all people I had more than a casual acquaintanceship with.  Brad and I became physics partners our senior year at Cornell and did our final physics project together, a film and computer model of traffic flow as it related to fluid dynamics which impressed the professor to no end.  Mike and I spent three weeks sharing rooms in a Burma that was more highly policed for foreign travelers than it is now.  Marc and I became close friends on a six-week school-age trip to Israel in the mid-1980's and remained close our final year of high school and first few years of college. 

The procedure for getting back in touch with all three was the same.  They invited me to become friends.  I approved the request and sent them out a lengthy e-mail asking them what had transpired in their lives over the last decade or two since I'd seen them.   They sent back a reply of a few sentences, and the catch up was complete.   Initially, I was expecting videochats, insights about the directions their lives had gone in, how they met their wives.  What I got back was the kind of update a casual acquaintance would've received.

But you see, that's what I was now.  We hadn't seen each other in years.  I was no longer part of their daily vocabulary.   A paragraph was probably all I deserved.  Now that I'm their Facebook buddies, I receive the casual group updates all their Facebook friends see posted up on their walls. If, for some reason, I were going to be in Seattle, San Diego, or Houston, I would look these former friends up, catch up over dinner or a drink.  But since such trips aren't planned, it's a hypothetical discussion.  Reality dictates that these men remain virtual friends.  There's more than a fifty-fifty chance I'll never see any of them again.

Using the internet, it's relatively easy to dig up contacts you haven't seen or thought about in years.  As a test, I just looked up a childhood neighbor of mine I haven't seen since 1984 or 1985.  He's now a gay doctor living in Pittsburgh.   Facebook has various groups like "Class of 19XX" for high schools and universities, and you don't have to be a member of the group to peruse its membership.  For kicks, I scanned through the photographs and noted all the people I knew, more curious how they'd physically aged than anything else.  Any one of these people I could invite to become my "friend." It costs them nothing to approve the request.  But why bring those "friendships" out of the past?  If three real friends had sent me terse updates of their lives, what more could I expect from people who were always casual acquaintances?

I don't think the passage of time alone is what turned my friendships with Mike, Marc, and Brad into casual acquaintanceships.  The internet helped do it, too.  Paradoxically, the internet was both the facilitator for us getting back in touch and also the reason our connections, once re-established, were never in a position to regain a fraction of their former strength.   Let me explain.

In 1994, pre-internet, I embarked on a three year trip throughout Southeast Asia, South Asia, and eastern and southern Africa.  Along the way, I encountered people I felt worth keeping in touch with.  Back then, all you could exchange were physical snail mail addresses, not Facebook names or e-mails.  I did actually have the use of an e-mail address, my father's on Compuserve's private network, but since no one else at that time had one or really knew what it was, e-mail was next to worthless for keeping in touch.  To keep connections alive, you either had to send letters or postcards, which required time to write by hand, or ring people up on the phone, which required money.   Skype and their ilk didn't yet exist, and long distance and international calls were very costly.  The bottom line:  it required work, and you only stayed in touch with people you felt justified the effort.

After the widespread adoption of e-mail, hand written letters became archaic.  I can't tell you the last time I received one or wrote one, and my own handwriting, never great, has deteriorated further for lack of use.  With e-mail, you can send multiple people the identical message simultaneously.  Just select cc or bcc.  Indeed, group joke messages are all I receive from some of my "friends."  Once social networking sites took off in the mid-2000's, you didn't even have to post group e-mail messages any longer.  You could just scribble stuff up on your Facebook wall or Myspace page and exchange line-by-line banter with those who took the time to make a comment.  Keeping in touch, if you could call it that, required that much less effort.

What e-mail and then social networking sites have done is allow us to be 'friends' with a lot more people.  Our network list grows wider, faster.  Were I to diligently pursue every available contact I could on Facebook, befriending everyone I sort of knew from my high school, university, friends of friends, and so on, I would have over a thousand friends.   I don't consider myself a special case here.  Anyone could do this.  Businesses were attempting to reach their target audiences well before the internet was invented by sending out fliers and notices.  The internet lowered the cost for them to keep in touch.  That's why it comes as no surprise that every business and web site under the sun currently asks you to join their Twitter and Facebook pages.  The medium is perfectly suited to business objectives.  

The lowered costs of making contact and the ease by which it's done make us lazier.  When it's so simple to write a couple of sentences on your wall that you just got back from being tortured in North Korea, there goes the impulse to send a long personal letter to any real friends.  I find that any of my real friends on Facebook remain in that category because I see them or call them often enough.  Those not in that group naturally recede into the distance. 

In 1991, when I lived in Sweden, it cost my parents over $1/minute in 1991 dollars ($1.60 today) to call me.  Today, it would cost but a penny per minute via a VOIP service, less than 1% of the 1991 cost.  According to TeleGeography, cross-border telephone traffic grew 14% in 2007 and an estimated 12% in 2008.   With long distance phone costs a fraction of what they used to be, does that mean we're all reaching for the phone on a regular basis and keeping in touch more diligently with ever greater numbers of long distance friends than we did the past? 

Probably not.  E-mail allows a person to send out ten identical messages in less time than it took to hand write one letter in the past.  Two of the recipients on the list could be real friends and eight, acquaintances.  It costs nothing to mail out the additional eight copies.  But with phone calls, each additional phone call, even if free or close to it, costs time.  Every time I recharge my VOIP account, I receive 90 days to call a number of countries for free.   Even at a cost of zero cents per minute, I don't now make regular calls to people I wouldn't have called when the calls weren't free.  Internet telephony could be used to let people keep in touch with more people at lower cost.  The reality for most on a personal basis is that it facilitates calling the same people one would've already called, but more frequently.  Or calling people you would've been hand writing letters to twenty years ago.  Internet telephony alters the way we keep in touch without improving the quality or quantity of the contacts.

I mean, I could call Brad, Marc, and Mike for practically nothing.  Why don't I or why don't they call me?  Time.  Or another way of putting it, priority management.   We're not priorities to each other.  When you can keep in touch with everyone at practically zero cost, you must ask yourself who do you realistically have the time for.  This wasn't a question you could have posed to yourself before 1998.  Digging up old friends back then involved real financial and time costs.  You wouldn't go to the trouble unless there was something you wanted from them or they were such a good buddy that you intended to keep in close touch afterwards.  Because those costs have now fallen to near zero, all of us are in a position to befriend every one we've ever known or met.  No joke.  My girlfriend has an Australian food & beverage director colleague who greeted a guest once and, a week later, was then invited by this guest to become his Facebook buddy.  The Australian fellow delisted his Facebook profile immediately. 

Had the internet been around when I was 8 or 9, I have to wonder how many of the people I lost touch with over the years I would've instead maintained ties with.  My best guess is that the picture wouldn't look all that different.  At the touch of a button or a skim of a social networking home page, I would've been able to find out what old friends were up to over the years without really caring one way or the other.  I'd say very few real friends were lost over the years because of the lack of the internet, just as I'd say that very few real friendships were maintained over the years because of it. 

What the internet has done is create a new class of friendship.  Where once I might've qualified for Marc's A-list of friends, today I, like many others, make his endless virtual list, his V-list.  In prior generations, there would've been no such thing as a V-list.   We would've fallen off each other's radar completely.  The internet has made it near effortless to capture people on the margin, such as former friends, one-shot acquaintances, the prostitute you enjoyed during spring break, the person at your high school reunion you won't speak with until the next one, etc.    

Speaking of high school reunions, three weeks ago, I received an invitation to my high school's XXth reunion next year.  I won't spell out which one.  Normally, people attend such reunions to catch up with people they haven't seen in years.  I've been thinking this over.  I could do as much in depth catch up time via a social networking site just by adding all these people to my V-list.  

Guess I won't be going.

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