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
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
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
Mike I met traveling through Burma in
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.
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
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
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
Reality dictates that these men remain virtual
more than a fifty-fifty chance I'll never see any of them
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
Guess I won't be going.