Facebook: On friendship

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Facebook...a playground?

Remember when you first got Facebook, and the aim was to accept as many people as friends, connect up with as many long-forgotten school-time acquaintances, join as many funny oh-so-true groups, and make as many cringe-inducing/casually-hilarious status updates as possible?

For me, and most people of around my age, this happened about five years ago, when everyone started to go to University and realised that a substantial portion of your time could be futilely occupied by spending hours steeped in a procrastination-driven haze, monitoring everyone’s every move, poring over everyone’s latest photos, and letting everyone know exactly what you were thinking or doing almost exactly when you were thinking or doing it.

I was pretty bad as status updates go ‒ I visibly blanch and feel a little nauseous at the thought of the bollocks I used to publish for all to see, including caffeine-induced diatribes at 4am the night before an essay deadline, and the ensuing charting of falling mood in line with caffeine levels well into the morning and next week. It won’t be the first, or the last (I’m sure) time that I’ve got myself into hot water by saying something that I have no intention of people taking seriously, only for them to do so, and subsequently question my intentions, or worse, overall mental stability in consequence. After all, just because you think (or type) some off-the-cuff comment, doesn’t follow that you wholeheartedly mean it, or will mean it an hour later once you’ve calmed down. As all those who used MSN Messenger in those halcyon days will know, tone of voice doesn’t necessarily translate into text.

Since then, in a nutshell, everyone has been in various stages of damage-limitation, learning how to use Facebook sensibly and usefully without coming across as a totally attention-starved and needy little git (as much as possible anyway, who’s to say that I don’t still come across like this no matter what I do? Ah well, never mind – that’s a whole other blog, and hey, you can’t control everything).

I still use Facebook regularly, to post links to articles and images I think my friends will find interesting or funny, as a place to upload photos and keep them all in one, accessible place – although this in itself has its problems, since it’s hard to upload all your holiday snaps without a tinge of the ‘look-at-me-and-my-super-amazing-friends-and-how-much-fun-we’re-having-on-my-super-super-amazing-fuckoff-travels!!’) ‒ as a site to go to for events updates and invites to friends’ birthdays, and, basically, to write brief and carefree-sounding status updates when something that strikes me as especially relatable or interesting occurs.

I also genuinely enjoy seeing what friends and family are up to, and of course love how easy it is to leave a comment or a message with someone, or a group of people, and get real-time responses, share jokes and generally interact with people who don’t have any other agenda.

Otherwise, I try not to wallow in the homepage feed. Even though there may be loads of posts and pictures that make you smile or that spark brief interest, inevitably, Facebook wandering becomes online self-sabotage: most of the time, someone will be having a better time than you, have more photos of themselves having a super-amazing time, be having better holidays, better weekends, better dinners, better er, everything, basically, and by the time you’ve scrolled to the bottom of the never-ending homepage, you’ll be feeling much like a forgotten party balloon from a birthday three-weeks gone. Keeping up with the Jones isn’t new…but now it’s gone global, for more people, for more of the time, than ever before. That way, my friends, madness lies.

And, in the rare event that you see someone having less of a good time than you, your immediate reaction will either be ‘Hahahaha, allow me to revel in a spot of schaudenfreude as I delight in the fact that I am an all-round more together and more fun human being than yourself, hahaha aren’t I wonderful’, and in doing so becoming an even more sick-making and pitiable individual than you may have been before, or alternatively simply thinking that that person is a dull and tragic example of total Facebook over-share, throwing them nothing more than a disdainful thought, or worse, the curse of the ‘unsubscribe me from this person’s status updates’ button. Nothing could be more cutting, or final.

Which brings me neatly to the impetus that drove me to this post. A few days ago, I realised that someone I went to school with had ‘unfriended’ me. For a totally random reason, I wanted to drop them a line about something inconsequential but nonetheless interesting and potentially useful that had occurred to me, and duly went on their page, expecting to have the cursory browse around what they were doing with their life now (as I had in the past, quite interesting, thanks), and quickly leaving a comment. Instead, I was greeted with the online equivalent of a locked screen door. I could glimpse in, but not see in; much less look round. Now, as usually happens with old school friends as everyone grows up and moves on, this person has not been that close to me over the past few years, but we were very good friends at school, and after a savage but entirely run-of-the-mill falling out at around the age of 16, had fallen into a kind of tacit friendship that might see us exchanging messages every now and again for old times’ sake, and perhaps a sneaky peek round the latest photos to see how everyone was getting on once every few months. But nope, I appear to have been culled. The cheek of it! Who knows who else has culled me in recent years or months?! And why, pray tell, do I find myself actually giving a shit!?

My first reaction, truly, is to genuinely not care – but it has definitely made me consider the role that Facebook plays in my life. Because, and this is slightly shameful, my second reaction is to care a little bit, verging on more than I’d be willing to admit about what it means for how intrinsic Facebook has become to many of our lives.

On the one hand, Facebook isn’t real life (and as I say, spending loads of time on it is a one-way ticket to a wasted life and self-pity anyway). When you are defriended, which, blogs and recent news articles tell me, is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon of late, it’s not necessarily a personal thing, especially if you’ve had no contact with the person. It’s more a dropping off that individuals’ radar, a tacit nod to the fact that you’re no longer in the same social circles as you once were.

It’s not as if this person has actually spoken out against you, or you’ve had a row, or you’ve experienced the same kind of harrowing ‘defriending’ that occurs when a relationship breaks up and the public renouncement of your connections over Facebook is merely another dart in the already salt-filled wound. As I say, it seems to be becoming common ‒ several friends in recent months have posted statuses along the lines of ‘If you can see this, congratulations, you’ve not been culled!’ and apparently this is just the natural backlash to those first, stumbling days where you friended anyone and everyone in an attempt to get numbers up and be seen as in the loop on the latest networking phenomenon.

On its own, being de-friended by someone you never normally speak to and only casually wish a happy birthday to when Facebook itself reminds you of the date (which in itself is fairly indicative of how much people can become dependent on it to run their social lives) is not an issue.

But why then, has it played on my mind?

Basically, I reckon, it’s because nobody likes being dumped, and because Facebook, for better or for worse, is often seen as a reflection, however hazy, of life. No matter how much you thought you didn’t care, or how small the connection, the feeling that someone has actually gone through their friendship list, address book, phone contacts or whatever else, and actively pressed delete, is a sharp pill to swallow. It’s not so much that it’s on a public platform – Facebook doesn’t state or publicise people deleting you off their friends list for obvious reasons – although mutual friends may one day notice that you no longer have the connection you once did. In my case, this person has clearly done a rather massive cull – from a mutual friends list which once numbered around 50, it has now shrunk to 6. And I certainly haven’t cut numbers myself.

But I think the discovery of being culled also rankles because I myself am not sure how I feel about the idea. It’s like being dumped when you had an inkling the relationship needed ending the first place, but you never quite got round to it. Someone has pipped me to the post, and I’m peeved. On the one hand, I see the sense. Why live, more or less publically, broadcasting anything you might upload, post, comment or share to all and sundry, when one/many of those are people you would only, in real life, speak to out of forced jollity and nostalgia of years past? Facebook is, for all its publicity, a rather intimate platform, so I can completely see why someone would want to limit it, with all its attendant issues, to only a small group of current, trusted or especially good friends, relatives or acquaintances.

But chopping someone off your list seems so final. As I say, for me, and I suspect, many of those my age, Facebook points to those naïve, hope-filled days of Freshers Week and new beginnings – and, in the case of this particular person, even more sepia-faded days of school and exam results. Getting ‘dumped’ closes the door on those times and suggests that they really are over; no going back. As one might say on this occasion: ‘sad face’.

It also rather unsettlingly suggests one of my worst fears – that people are merely putting up with you, pretending to care, enduring rather than enjoying, your company, and that really, you actually are that pathetic, whingy little tosser that you secretly suspect you might be (see above for full details). Even more sad face. (In more ways than one).

But really, if putting yourself out there to what is effectively an audience of your peers results in the penalty of ‘defriending’, then really, what does Facebook become? Something which many have suspected is a long-overdue realisation – rather than being a cosy place to link up with friends from past and present, it instead becomes either a closed-shop that links those good friends who are already in touch by other means (such as text) and in so doing becomes rather limited and redundant as a network, or it is reduced to a stage where only the wittiest, most-outgoing, loudest and most strident people survive ‒ those with the best holiday snaps, perkiest status updates, most entertaining video links and sharpest eyes on the most incisive articles. It leaves no room for those you may have once known but now only consider periodically with a brief but fondly curious look at their latest photos to see how things have moved on; those who might be prone to a bit of self-indulgent complaining every now and again; those who want to share photos of things they’ve done for no other reason than they enjoyed it.

My worry, and clearly, what’s been bothering me about my own personal defriending, is that Facebook is looking to me suspiciously like the snake pit of the various bitchy playgrounds that I frequented as a socially awkward, sometimes quite literally foreign, slightly geeky, not especially beautiful, prone-to-say-what-I-think-even-when-I-probably-shouldn’t child and adolescent that makes a thin layer of sweat congeal on my brow if I think about it for too long. I thought I’d got away from all that bollocks when I found a great group of friends at Uni and finally started to sort out what made sense in my own life after years and years of having to fit into other people’s.

As late or naïve as I may be to the party, I’ve got a sinking feeling that the veil of hope and social networking pioneering sheen may be coming off Facebook, and revealing it to be nothing but a social playground for the witty, popular, and even the rich and beautiful, with no regard for the slightly less flashy, human stories and shared pasts that link those within it. Some may argue that that’s life, but hey, I don’t need to bring that pushy, social climbing, social ‘hierarchy’, ‘popularity’ crap into my bedroom (and my life) voluntarily, thanks.
But if that assessment is true, then maybe I need to consider again my own usage of the place. True, it’s still very useful for all the reasons I’ve outlined above. Only the other day, to pick but one example, I used it to show my mum pictures of her friend’s new dog (because we live in the UK and they live in France – very sensible use of the Internet as a tool for friends to share information, I think you’ll agree). But for everything else, well, I no longer use status updates as a counselling session, so maybe I can wean myself off the other stuff too.

But, I should add, if I decide to do my own ‘cull’ (what a horrible word for people you once deigned to add as friends in the first place!) doing so with caution, and only then, considering what those on the receiving end of the hacksaw might think – and the blogs they might spout off in, demonstrably – in return. Not because I particularly live my own life according to the whims and petty concerns of others, but because I don’t think such decisive and potentially cutting action for a friendly and familiar (usually, anyway) setting such as Facebook is necessary, unless someone actively goes out of their way to offend or irritate in a way that would mean I’d stop seeing them or talking to them in real life as well.

In much the same way as you might just stop texting someone as often as you once did simply because your lives have gone in different directions, I don’t think I’d go out of my way to definitively stop ‘being friends’ with someone for the sake of streamlining my life, unless I truly regretted befriending them in the first place. I just don’t feel the need.

Admittedly, I might assign my least-close ‘friends’ to a ‘list’, block my silliest or most indulgent statuses from them, or stop them seeing some of my personal photos (all of which I’m quite sure they wouldn’t miss in the slightest)… but defriending entirely…well, that strikes far too much of a playground squabble to me, and frankly, let’s let that lie where it belongs – in the playground, with the other kids.

On the other hand, Facebook, consider yourself distanced. If you really want to get in touch, you know where I am 🙂

What do you think? Let me know

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