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Doug Knell


depth is not the name of the friendship game on social network sites like Facebook. Breadth is when it comes to racking up friend after friend. It's like having a subscriber join your feed. Robert Metcalfe said that the value of a network was the number of subscribers squared. He met the telecommunication network, not the social network, mates.

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The Broad, Silent, Shallow Ship Leading To Nowhere
social networking

The long run into infinity: uncountable "friendships" with zero depth

Ever heard that your wealth is determined by the size of your network?    Well, if you haven't, you're hearing it now.   This is not a revolutionary idea someone recently came up with.  Thirty years ago, Ethernet co-inventor Robert Metcalfe, in his eponymous Metcalfe's Law, stated that the value of a (telecommunications) network is proportional to the square of the number of its connected users.   Knell's Law, applied to social networks, states that the value of your network is inversely proportional to the amount of time you waste on it on Facebook. 

In my article Friendship In The Post Internet World, I wrote about how Facebook has created the new virtual list of friends, the V-list.  For the younger generation who've only experienced a world with Facebook and other social networks in it, every friend they've ever had will appear in their V-list.  The rest of us have to take the time to manually dig up these old contacts. 

I am now officially declaring that I've permanently retired from that task.  The digging up of old contacts from long ago for the sake of "catching up" is as over as Charlie Sheen's next marriage.  Been there, done that. 

I am all behind building up networks, but real networks, of people whose lives I'm truly interested in, who might be of assistance to me or me to them at some future juncture.   I am not interested in creating vast but powerless networks of Facebook postees I met once in my entire life telling the greater universe about baking chocolate chip cookies as fresh lily white snow falls outside. 

For a society obsessed with "meeting the numbers", Facebook is great.   Members amass hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of friends, forming networks of significant breadth but short on depth.   Very short on depth -- I met people in Los Angeles deeper than some of these Facebook networks. Were I to run into some of my Facebook "friends" on the street, I doubt a quarter of them would even know who I was.  As a joke, I thought about befriending 10 random people just to see if they'd approve me as their friend.  The real joke though would be on me.  After they approved my friendship requests, I'd be stuck reading their iterations about toilet breaks and diaper changes.

Last month were the straws which broke the camel's back.  The first incident involved half of a pair of Canadian fraternal twins getting in touch with me out of the blue on Facebook.  It was great rekindling that tie.  I had last seen Steve and his twin brother Stan fifteen years ago when we met at the Indian-Nepalese border and trekked Nepal together.  Steve answered my queries about what direction his life had taken and e-mailed me a few scanned photographs from our 1995 Nepal trip.  Naturally, my next step was to befriend Stan as well and catch up with him.  Stan approved my friendship request and that was it.   He didn't exchange a single personal word with me. 

Stan and I are conducting what I call a silent friendship.   He never contacts me, and now, after his first silent reaction, I will never contact him again.   An interesting exercise I should perform is to tally up the percentage of my Facebook "friends" I write at least one personal message to per year.  I've procrastinated doing this.  I'm afraid of the depressing results.  Likely, more than 50%, quite possibly 70%, of my Facebook buddies are silent friends. 

The second incident happened a couple of weeks ago.   I was working on a travel article for Doug's Republic and all of the sudden the names of a sexuagenarian couple I knew in my California days came to mind.   The miracle of the internet at my fingertips, I tapped their names into the search engines and found the female party's profile on Facebook.   Through her, her husband's.  I immediately sent out friendship requests to them both. 

Within 24 hours, both had approved me.  This time, being the initiator of our 'reunion', I held back on providing full updates, waiting to see how  they responded first.  The man wrote "Where did you wind up?"; the woman, "We miss you.  Where are you?"  I replied and added that the full updates on my life in the five years since last we'd seen each other were to be found here.   This time around,  I wasn't even going to waste the effort of typing in the updates manually.  Checking my logs several days later, neither ever bothered visiting the About Doug section of Doug's Republic or any page on the site.   The catch up was complete with just four words:  I am in Thailand. 

So, after all is said and done, what did I get out of that experience but more names to add to my V-list, more people to add to my already high percentage of silent friendships?  With such a miniscule reward, why would I search out more people who once graced my friendship lists and make them part of my endless V-list?  There's nothing in it for me.

Thirteen years ago, when I first moved to Los Angeles, I considered looking up an old friend from college, Orbay.   Orbay was two years older than I, an electrical engineering major.   During my sophomore year at Cornell, he occupied the single room adjacent to mine and was the only halfway normal guy (in my humble opinion) of the six people occupying our suite. Unknown to me at the time, Orbay was already on academic probation.  As the first term of Orbay's senior year concluded, his poor performance was repeated.  Cornell's policy at that time was to kick you out of school for one term.  Time away from the classroom was to be spent assessing one's educational direction.   Orbay had a brother living in Silicon Valley and moved out there. 

We kept in touch by phone in this ancient pre-internet and pre-email age.  When my sophomore year concluded in May, I signed up for an Outward Bound course for 3-weeks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  My trip originated in Fresno, California.  Orbay heard about my trip and suggested I book another flight to San Francisco from Fresno to see him after my course concluded.  I did.   It was the last time I saw Orbay. That was way back in 1988.   I spent a year abroad that fall and heard from Orbay only once or twice until I graduated college.   Without e-mail addresses and social networks and with lots of relocation on both our parts, we lost touch. 

I found Orbay in an old Santa Barbara phone book around 1998 and almost called him.  As more information became available online, sometime in the early 2000's I found him to be living in northern California, in the Silicon Valley area, married to the college girlfriend I'd last seen him with in 1988.  Later, I discovered his family's personal web site. He was now the father of four.  I still held back from getting in touch, even after sourcing his e-mail address from the family web site. 

My reasoning then was the same as it is now, only now I'm ever surer of my beliefs.  I hadn't seen Orbay in years.  We were in different stages of our lives.  How would I feel if getting in touch with him wasn't what I was hoping it would be?  It could be like the bad TV reunion special of a classic television series. The past was the past, leave it alone. I threw his e-mail address into the trash.  That was well over 5 years ago, long before Facebook became the smash it is now.  Since passing up the chance to rekindle ties with Orbay, I've been solicited to become friends with plenty of figures from my past, all with unsatisfactory results.  I just checked.  Orbay has his own Facebook page.   I could relight that torch now, but why bother? 

I've lived long enough to experience making close friends as a young adult, lose touch with them, and then be given the opportunity through the internet to revisit those old friendships if I so wish.  In the beginning, it was natural to be idealistic about getting back in touch with friends long lost.   As this became more and more commonplace, and I saw the old friendships in the proper context in my present life, each subsequent name added to my V-list was met with more indifference.   I continue to remain flattered that people from my distant past still remember me and go to the trouble to search for me.  That's where the flattering part ends.  Once I'm actually befriended and neither of us shares much personally with the other, I comprehend fully what the reunion game is really about. 

The generations growing up with social networks will never know what I'm experiencing, as they'll never lose touch with old friends, not in the very real way my generation did.  Old friends will just slowly turn into silent friends.   My girlfriend's son moved to Thailand when he entered first grade.  He did not then use Facebook.  All friends he met before using Facebook who've since moved away are gone.   He doesn't mention them, talk about them, or even go onto the internet to search for them.  He's still too young to idealize those friendships.  All those he met after Facebook are now on his friendship list.  For any child born after 2005, everyone he's ever known and remotely liked will be part of his V-list on whatever social network(s) are prevalent in the future.

The pragmatism of real friendship, formed out of time, proximity, and genuine sharing, isn't replaceable by a social network.  The more I use such networks, I recognize they just mimic what's going on in the offline world for any somewhat normally socially adjusted individual.   The people with whom I exchange the most Facebook posts are the same people I typically maintain contact with and exchange e-mails with anyway. 

However, the fact that anyone can now be your "friend" at the touch of a button has bred a cavalier attitude towards friendship in the offline world, too.  I've overheard one too many conversations where one party told the other to "Look for me on Facebook."  No one bothered to ask the other for a telephone number.   A telephone number was too much.  That might imply you'd actually have to see each other in person later! 

Getting telephone numbers doesn't mean one helluva lot on its own in the internet age either, sorry to say.   Nine months ago I was attending the party of a wealthy jewelry manufacturer in his elegant flat in a condo in our town.   He didn't invite me to this party.  He didn't even know me.   Other people who barely knew him invited me to come. 

I was briefly introduced to him.  Several days later I ran into him.  He didn't remember me, and I had to re-introduce myself.  I was at the immigration office seeking a re-entry permit after an upcoming vacation to Bali.  At the mention of this, the jewelry tycoon remarked that he owned a flat in Seminyak and we should get together for dinner so he could tell me all about the local hotspots.  He whipped out his smartphone and tapped in my number.  I suspected as he was tapping the digits into his phone that they were entering a cyber black hole where all information you never intend to access again is dumped.   Sure enough, I never heard from him again.  

I wasn't betting money that he would call, and I don't take it personally.  Mine isn't the first telephone number to be tossed into the cybervoid.   Girls were already tossing my number there as far back as 1984.  But I was surprised that he was so proactive about getting my number.  I can't help but think that the resultant indifference comes from today's definition of friendship in an era of social networking, where you'll befriend someone on Facebook you may have met for just a second coming out of the toilet stall.   Literally, I believe some people are trying to database every single person they've ever met.     This jewelry man is a friend of mutual friends on Facebook, so it would be very easy for me to befriend him, too.  But what for?  I think that if I ran into him again at the immigration office tomorrow, he'd be no more likely to remember me now than he did 9 months ago.

Let's not get confused.  Most of your friends on social networks are more like subscribers opting to follow your feeds.  You do not need to be friends with someone to read their columns or look at their photographs.  Perfect example -- you're reading this article on Doug's Republic at this very moment, and you probably don't know me personally and, if you did, would probably hate me.  The big difference between the two is that subscribers probably don't personally know the person whose site/list/advice they've subscribed to, whereas in a social network, the pretense of becoming friends with someone is that you've met them before, maybe for just seconds, or personally know someone they know. 

I'd argue that the subscriber relationship is actually more sincere.  The subscriber gleans something of value from another's knowledge or point of view and voluntarily asks to be contacted. The subscriber may provide comments and input at a later date that stand to prove more useful to the knowledge provider than social networking comments like "Woke up and drank a great coffee with fresh baked donuts this morning."  The only person who might care about that revelation is the commenter's husband and kids, and I doubt they'd care all that much about it either.  And perchance they're ecstatic about their parent or spouse broadening the waistline on sugary donuts, surely no one else in the friendship network is going to care.

There's nothing wrong with people I genuinely knew in my past not giving a hoot what's going in my life in the present.  I cut these people a lot of slack.  They may not care what their own kids are up to.  But why get in the line and seek out more people from my past who don't give a hoot what I'm doing?  If you're a Simon & Garfunkel fan and revel in the sound of silence, go out and establish thousands of silent friendships.    I'll settle for a few who know how to make noise. 

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