Monday, September 08, 2008

What a piece of work is a friend.

The rise of internet social networking has introduced new versions of old social questions. Emily Post can't help us now, but perhaps stuff like this is covered at the Emily Post Institute, which "carries on her work".

The following examples happened to me recently:


I'll confess that I occasionally do something that would have frustrated me as a manager: I talk to paid employees during their shifts. I don't do it often, but it does happen. In my tenure as a St. Louis Bread Company manager, I let this sort of thing slide if the employee didn't make a habit AND if we weren't inundated with business.

So I don't hold it against the manager when, after spending at least an hour and a half chatting with friends, she gave me the hint to move along. They do have work to do and my talking was a definite distraction. Her passive-aggressive declaration ("Haa haa, wow, you have been standing here a LONG time.") didn't do anything to recommend her to me, however.

So, I was surprised when she sent me an invitation to be her friend on Facebook. You'd be shocked, too: those "shoo-fly" words were literally the first and only thing she's ever said to me in my entire life. We are in no stretch of the word "friends". In speaking to other employees about it, they said she really likes Facebook. I'm assuming this puts her and I on opposite sides of the "What is a Friend?" question.

I treat Facebook as a reflection of my everyday social network. Most of the people I'm friends with there are people I'm friends with in the everyday course of my life. I use it like a giant social calendar, where it helps me to keep track of what other friends are doing or thinking. It works especially well with friends I don't see or contact on a regular basis. Take Mary Beth, for example. She's one of my oldest friends (third grade?) , but we haven't been in regular communication since the end of high school. She's now married, living in California, and working for the Getty Museum. It's a far cry from her younger aspirations of being queen of her own private island, but she's yet young; there's plenty of time for that to happen.

It's fantastic to be in contact with people through Facebook that I otherwise wouldn't hear about. It makes me feel close to my friend in Chicago when she says, "Went to see a movie: it sucked but the popcorn was good." It's not the sort of thing that she'd bother to put into an occasional letter to me, but it makes me think of the times I went to see movies with her, or the times we had popcorn while waiting for things to happen.

That's my type of personality. I love reading blogs and updates about (or written by) my friends, because I *know* them and I'm interested in what they do and think. I have no interest in the Pokemon aspect of Facebook friends: gotta collect 'em all! I know some people just send out invitations to anyone they encounter, like a professional Rolodex gone wild. That's why I've ended up with invitations from several people in the groups I play in, even though we've never exchanged words (not even, "Hello").

Something just occurred to me, though. I usually end up as one of the most dominant personalities in a group, simply because I have no fear of talking to conductors, or even making fun of them. As such, maybe I'm in the position of being the "popular" person whom everyone feels like they know. And perhaps that's why they'd want to be *my* friend. Huh! I'll have to think about that; I never considered myself in the "minor celebrity" category.

At any rate, I want friends in Facebook, not acquaintances. Which is why I'll turn this lady down, unless we become friends in the next few months. In that case, I'll give her the power and ask HER to be friends.


Facebook has a section devoted to "People You Might Know". It looks at how many friends you have in common with other people and suggests that you might know them, too. I don't know if there's some mathematical formulas at work here, though there probably should be. If I have 80 friends total and there's an individual I share 40 of them with, there's a good chance I know that person.

But lately, that section has been suggesting friends which are, well, long shots. Recently, it suggested a person who lived in Maine, who was friends with ONE of my friends. One? Seriously? At current count, I have 98 friends. Let's assume that, on average, each one of them has 100 friends (which is low-balling). Finally, my friend with whom I have the most mutual friends has 62 links with me. So, let's call an average of 35 shared, since many of my friends have only 1 or 2 mutual acquaintances.

In light of all these approximations, it means that for each of my friends, there are 35 people who would connect to me only through 1 person (that "first tier" friend of mine). 35 times 98 equals 3430, and it would get exponentially bigger as I add new friends. It just seems far-fetched to assume that I'm going to know someone that only one other person does, as long as there are still people that I might know that have 46 mutual acquaintances (as one did just now).


In March, one of my Facebook friends temporarily vanished. It turned out she temporarily deactivated her account to allow herself time to focus on schoolwork. My concerns at the time about relationship problems were completely disproved. It's amazing how comprehensive that block turns out to be, since it removed her from ongoing conversations, unassociated her name from pictures other people had taken, and made it appear as though she'd never been on Facebook at all.

The current case also concerns a friend who disappeared from my friends list, but only MY friends list. Suspicious!

This started earlier in the summer, when an acquaintance from high school sent me a friend invitation out of the blue. I talked above about friends I really haven't talked to since high school, but this person I didn't really talk to that much IN high school. Part of it was that we went on a couple of "dates" that were unsatisfactory, probably because I had no idea what to do on dates (or even that I was actually ON a date). From that point on, we basically just smiled at each other in the hallway.

Anyway, she sent me an invitation in the middle of the summer. I thought about it a bit (is she *really* my friend?), but decided that we had been friends and that's about all I needed. After all, aren't I a more mature person than I was 14 years ago? Well, I'd like to think so, anyway.

I've picked up a handful of high school era friends on Facebook, and almost to a man (or woman), the act of becoming friends has not initiated any actual communication. Trying to catch up with people after 12 years of silence is not for the faint of heart, and it's a heck of a lot easier to just leave your Facebook profile open. I can wander over at my leisure and see where they went to school, their job history, their current photos of pets, lovers, or kids, all without needing to commit to hours spent writing a life story. It works well. It allows old friends to stay "familiar", even if they never actually interact. Similar to getting the yearly newsletter from your high school reunion class.

In case of this particular friend, I found out she's married, involved with military music-making, and living in the great vast Kansas plains somewhere. A nice little jaunt down memory lane. Over the next couple of weeks, I'd see her update her status message, which is a single-line comment on life that shows up chronologically (with all your other friends) on the main page.

Then, about three weeks ago, I went to show my parents a map indicating the links between my old high school friends, and I found that she wasn't where I thought she'd be. Weird. Was the utility on the fritz, leaving people out randomly? Not that I could tell. I wondered if she'd pulled out of the Facebook entirely, as others have done before her.

Not so. A quick search showed that she was still in the main directory, but that the link between us had been severed. We were no longer "friends". That means she specifically went in and intentionally disconnected us. To its credit, Facebook is very low-key when you are "un-friended". The service makes a big deal when you accept friendship requests, announcing them on your homepage for all your other friends to see. When a friendship dissolves, nothing is said. Facebook does not notify the user when someone has ceased to be friends with them. In fact, had I not looked for her specifically, I probably wouldn't have noticed she was gone for quite some time, since we weren't directly communicating.

Why did she decide to interrupt a non-interactive connection? She didn't say, and I can only guess. Maybe she got tired of seeing my face every time I updated my status? Maybe she had a good think and decided to refine the criteria of her friendship parameters, sometime after inviting me and before the uninviting. Maybe she came to this blog and didn't like the color scheme. Maybe she didn't like my political leaning. Maybe she disliked the fact that I *didn't* say anything to begin with, and she certainly wasn't going to speak first!

Who knows? If it were a long-time friend, I'd be moved to action. As it is, it's worth a shrug and some meandering thoughts after dinner.

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