Today I’ve been thinking about friendship. What it means. How you measure it. What forms it takes, and how you can be sure it’s genuine and not just some social construct based on time and place.
This is not an easy exercise. Friendship is one of those unquantifiable relationships that probably means a thousand different things to a thousand different people. It’s like trying to describe a color to someone who lacks sight. But I did stumble across a friendship test not too long ago that struck a chord with me, and probably hits closer to home than any other description I’ve found:
Which friends would you contact immediately if some tragedy befell you, such as the loss of a loved one, or the diagnosis of a terminal medical condition?
Take a moment to think about that. Think about the people (family excluded) that you feel comfortable sharing the most personal and life-altering news with. This is not necessarily an easy thing to lay on another person. They might be sitting around at home, not a care in the world, and they get a call or a message out of the blue from someone giving them sad or horrible news.
Who would you pick out of your roster of friends and acquaintances?
It has to be someone you trust, because maybe you want to keep the news limited to a small circle of people for the time being. It has to be someone who can provide comfort without showering you with fake emotions or rote cliches. It has to be someone who understands you, knows what to say and how to say it – or what not to say – and with whom you have a deep bond. Finally, it has to be someone who does not feel put out or inconvenienced by having this heavy thing laid on them, but instead wants nothing more than to help.
In my case, I can think of two friends I would definitely contact. I can think of maybe three more who I would probably contact. That’s five people, tops, out of 7 billion in the world.
And yet I feel lucky. I feel like five friends like that is a pretty stout number. Because these are the kinds of friends you never have to explain yourself to, who accept you for who you are, with no judgement, and no arbitrary boundaries governing what is and isn’t allowed. They understand you in such a profound way that even when you are at your worst, they’re still there for you. And you for them.
I imagine this used to be a pretty standard barometer of friendship. I still think it’s the most valid one. But in the age of social media, friendship has become warped beyond all recognition. I have more than 200 “friends” on Facebook. When you eliminate family and work colleagues, that leaves maybe 160. And I’m guessing that I have had in-person contact with fewer than 10 percent of them over the last 30-plus years, not counting reunions, weddings, funerals and the like.
Some Facebook friendships have been quite positive. We’ve reconnected after a whole lot of years apart, and I’m thankful for that.
But many I don’t interact with at all. With most, our friendship essentially consists of mindlessly liking each other’s posts. This is probably how it is for just about anyone on social media.
The one thing I’ve come to realize is that there is a boundary to these online friendships. Cross that boundary, and you suddenly remember why it is you haven’t stayed in touch for 30-plus years. I have seen that boundary, up close. I have seen what happens when what you believed to be a positive online relationship suddenly hits a wall that cannot be scaled.
That’s when you realize just how shallow and useless most of these digital friendships really are.
My life before social media was pretty simple. I was like a kid who got dropped off in the woods at the age of three and managed to survive on berries and leaves for years, with no idea how the rest of the world operated. You are blissfully ignorant of the chaos and dysfunction just beyond the tree line.
I joined Facebook in 2017. I was already into my sixth decade by then. I had no desire or inclination to dive into social media. It held zero interest for me. A few years earlier I was forced by my employer to open a Twitter account so I could share articles I wrote. I was encouraged to open a LinkedIn account for professional networking reasons. But I rarely engaged on those.
I only joined Facebook because I had just published a book of short stories – “Money, Love and Blood,” available on Amazon! – and figured I needed a Facebook account to help promote it. I emerged from the woods and into the world beyond. I was an innocent babe: clueless, ignorant and primitive.
The education I got was swift and brutal. At first I was fascinated by Facebook, the way a chimp might be fascinated by a talking toy.
Wow, I had no idea my family member had this life, and these thoughts! Gee whiz, who knew this person I graduated high school with 40 years ago lived there and did that? Is that really my former boss writing these things?
I dove into this strange new world with eyes wide open, posting any old thing and laying my ignorant, primitive self out there for all the world to see. It didn’t take long to get a stern education on the rules – and how often I was breaking them.
I learned what you’re supposed to say, and what you’re not supposed to say.
I learned the importance of respecting someone else’s online persona and brand.
I learned how to humble brag and aw shucks without seeming too obvious about it.
I learned how to recognize the signs of subtle aggression.
I learned when to cut your losses and move on.
I learned how to recognize when you are violating someone else’s carefully orchestrated Facebook image by asking them an honest question right there on their page.
I learned how to read between the lines to expose someone else’s biases or political views. To wit:
So, you’re living in London, huh? Well how’s THAT going? (Meaning: How do you like living on that socialist, Godless continent?)
I guess I’m not what you’d call “politically correct.” (Meaning: I am a regressive bigot who hates everyone who doesn’t look or think like me).
Dude, please…. (Meaning: What you just wrote is stupid beyond immediate comment).
Still love you bro! (Meaning: I don’t love you, bro).
Oh, ok. (Meaning: Please go away).
One thing about Facebook: It pulls up the curtain on lives you thought you knew but had no idea about. I can’t count the number of times I sat there gape-mouthed at some of the amazingly weird things people I’ve known most of my life posted on Facebook. It’s like that “Twilight Zone” episode where everyone is suddenly different from the way they were yesterday.
And the opposite is also true. At some point I started letting my own opinions sneak through, started formulating my online brand and persona. And everyone else suddenly sees a side of you they have never seen before. And so family relationships get soured beyond repair, and friendships take a weird turn, and you suddenly find yourself questioning everything you’ve ever said on Facebook, and so you just start deleting all of it.
I often wonder whether Facebook conceals who people really are, or exposes who they really are. I still don’t know the answer.
I do know this: I have become the very person I never wanted to be on Facebook, trading angry and childish insults with strangers, posting tedious little episodes of my life to a bored audience, projecting a certain image just so I can collect a few likes from people I haven’t seen in 43 years and never will see again, getting scolded by the Facebook admins for running afoul of their arbitrary rules about engagement – the very same platform that allows lunatics to share insane and false conspiracy theories every minute of every day, as long as they do so without saying mean things about their fellow “community.”
All because I wanted to sell some books.
Well, Facebook has helped me sell an extra 80 or so books in four-and-a-half years. That’s about how many I really think I’ve sold posting over and over on Facebook, including my new novel “Voodoo Hideaway” (available wherever books are sold!).
Eighty books or so. That’s the grand total on Facebook. And out of that total, less than a dozen have ever shared feedback on any of the books I wrote. Because the truth is, most people on Facebook just don’t give a shit. And I don’t even blame them. They are drowning in other people’s hopes, dreams, heartaches, opinions, and minutiae. It hits them like an avalanche whenever they head to Facebook. After awhile it all just seems like white noise.
I deactivated my Facebook account today. I am this/close to deleting it altogether, because honestly:
Fuck Facebook, and all it represents.
It’s a money machine that pretends to be a community. It has been the vehicle behind which many relationships have been ruined, few if any have been strengthened, and lies spread like wildfire. You can’t really blame Facebook. It’s just a bunch of wires and codes. It is no better or worse than the people who engage on it.
In that sense, the only truly innocent souls are all the Moms and Dads, Grandmas, Grandmas, aunts and uncles who just want to share pics of their little loved ones.
Okay, you can also give a pass to people who just want to talk about music, art, food, sports, hobbies, yoga, exercise, nature and travel.
Much of the rest just seems like utter, bottomless bullshit.
I may never again be that simple, primitive guy in the woods again. But I can try. And so can anyone else. Because even without Facebook, you probably have friends. And they don’t give a crap about your online image, God bless them.