Best Friends Forever?

    Putting your best face forward on Facebook.
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    APR09 OMO image

    You can never have too many friends. It’s something my parents and grandparents used to tell me. Perhaps your own elders fed you the same advice. As true as that adage may have been back in the day, it’s patently false now, as anyone with a Facebook page knows. Facebook, for the uninitiated, is an online community in which you can share (and over-share) meaningful (and meaningless) details about your life. And therein lies both the attraction and the frustration of Facebook. It makes the rarity of a truly mutually beneficial friendship seem even more rare, while magnifying the irritating aspects of annoying friendships by a factor of 10. At least.

    The trouble lies in the very foundation block of the online service: Anyone that you “friend” on Facebook has access to your page, which can include comments, photos, and videos; in turn, you get access to his or her page. Facebook computers scan the databases containing their 175 million members and bring to your attention anyone that they think you might like to befriend based on the friends you have already identified. For instance, once you friend two people at the Acme Widget Company, Facebook will start asking if you’d like to friend other people at Acme. Plus, everyone who has ever known you, however remotely—as well as anyone who can spell your name in the search feature—can reach out to you and request that you friend each other. In mere days, if you work at it, you can have dozens, even hundreds, of these so-called friends, including a lot of people you’ve never met. A few may add some joy to your life but most will just be irritants.

    As of this writing, I have nearly 100 Facebook friends. In the “real world,” I’ve never had 100 friends. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had more than 10 (which is to say “three”—I just didn’t want to sound too pathetic). This is because I’m not that much fun to be around. On Facebook, however, you can establish your own identity, whether it aligns with your actual persona or not. Everyone is identified on Facebook with a picture which they upload as part of their profile. Most choose run-of-the-mill pics of themselves or their families, but some work harder at this. A popular technique is to use a photo in which only part of your face is in the frame. This tells the world that you are either: A) self-deceivingly avant-garde, or B) hiding an embarrassing acne problem. Another tactic is to use a superhero graphic, which can only suggest a wildly fantastical ego, or, ironically, a very poor self-image. Others use photos of objects like lamps or teakettles. I don’t get this approach. Nothing says “I’m a warm person that you should friend” quite like an inanimate object.

    You can change your profile photo as often as you’d like; every time you do, your friends are notified. Some people clearly have problems selecting a photo because they seem to change it every other day. You can almost hear the inner dialogue: Let’s see, for the past few days I’ve been using a photo that really shows off my hair. But that blouse is too blah. How about that shot of me in my green velour warm-up suit? It makes me look super sporty.… These are the people who never show up on time for anything because they cannot decide what to wear. And when they do show up, there they are, dressed in their green velour warm-up suit. Super sporty indeed.

    Another way to convince your Facebook friends that you are smarter, hipper, and funnier than humans should be allowed is by thoughtful selection of what you “fan.” When you choose to become a fan of a band, a celebrity, or an organization that has a presence on Facebook (like this magazine, for instance), your friends are notified. I just checked my page and learned one of my friends, John C., is now officially a fan of Snoopy, one of 541,065 other Facebook members. I suppose this says that John has a thing for classic cartoons, still has childhood issues, or both. I am a fan of the “Wal-Mart Sucks” group, displaying my disdain for retail conglomerates and poor customer service, neither of which actually stops me from shopping there.

    The easiest way to showcase your wit and charm on Facebook is the popular “status update,” in which users describe what they are doing that very minute (in 160 typewritten characters or less). This update immediately gets posted to all of your friends’ pages. As far as I can tell, most sane Facebookers tend to restrain themselves to about one update a day, though a significant number seem to change it every time they sneeze. In general, friends inform their friends of maddeningly mundane recent developments (“Bruce F. just brushed his teeth”; “Sharon M.’s dog recently humped her leg”; “Ferlin P. can’t find the dang TV remote,” etc.). However, a select few post updates that are more meaty in nature (“Dick C. is really hating the Iraq War right now”; “Dale T. is out of gin”; “Steve K. decrees that if his wife pesters him one more time about fixing the drain, he will throw a wet sponge at her,” etc.).

    I just glanced again at my Facebook page and learned that Sarah P. is “back to the grind,” that Angie F. is “semi-rested,” and that Laura B. is “feeling nostalgic.” Those are only three of several dozen updates from the past 12 hours. These sorts of insights into the physical and mental states of your friends are bound to make you reflect on your own existence. Yes, your friends lead rather boring, unremarkable lives, but that can be comforting when you consider that you, too, lead a rather boring, unremarkable life. Perhaps this kind of epiphany drives you crazy, like that guy in The Stranger who kills a total stranger on the beach because he can’t cope with the existential meaninglessness of life anymore. Well, it doesn’t have to come to that. Sometimes “I just ate a pint of double chocolate chip ice cream” is the best news we have to offer on any given day. And that’s OK. Still, it makes you wonder: Who has the time to unload this stream of humdrum consciousness? And then you think, Oh, yeah—we do.

    FORTUNATELY, IF YOU have Facebook friends who depress or somehow irritate you, there are solutions. First, you can choose to hear less from them, which means you won’t be alerted to every mundane status update or obnoxious photo that a person posts. You do this by merely clicking on a button that says “Less About [insert person’s name here].” If only life imitated technology. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a button you could push to hear a little less from someone at the office or within your own dysfunctional family? Imagine having to deal with an irritating colleague at every third meeting or your drunk Uncle Ralph every fourth Christmas. Oh, the blessings of technology.

    Friend management on Facebook gets even better—or more cruel, depending which end you’re on—with the “de-friend” option. That’s right, with one click you can digitally push someone who has committed the crime of being too friendly outside your circle, forcibly sending them into a kind of Facebook Siberia. Magically, those status updates about the latest color of nail polish she’s invested in or how tasty his mocha frappuccino is disappear. It also means that they will be spared the alert about the 114th photo of the lovingly restored 1978 Camaro you recently posted. In true junior-high-level Machiavellian style, when you dump a friend, they are not notified. In fact, they only discover they’ve been ostracized the next time they try to access your page, whereupon they are told, “Steve will have to confirm that you are friends.” Some suggest that this feature is a little too passive/aggressive, but I think it’s a relatively nice way to get rid of someone without having to hurt his or her feelings. Especially when the next step up is to “block” a person—in which case, when he or she comes knocking on your digital door, you don’t live there anymore…and you’ve left no forwarding address.

    Earlier this year, Burger King, in a brilliant promotion, offered people a free Whopper for every 10 Facebook friends they dumped. The short-lived campaign led to the destruction of 234,000 friendships. To dump a friend in the real world, I’d have to be given something far more substantial than a Whopper. I would at least need a Whopper, fries, and a Coke.

    SOME FACEBOOK FRIENDS are not friends in the traditional sense. Take two of mine: Stevie Spore and Touchdown Jesus. Stevie Spore is a costumed character created by a company that makes mold-resistant construction materials. Stevie is a guy you love to hate because in the videos he posts to his page, he frustrates the family he lives with by covering their toothbrushes, toilets, and towels with his nasty mold spores. It’s good, clean fun and makes me feel better for not showering every morning. Touchdown Jesus is the giant statue of Christ rising up out of a manmade pond, arms extended in a gesture of love, alongside I-75 in front of the Solid Rock Church near Monroe. It’s nice having friends, from the lowly spore to the mighty savior, who make no demands of you, and who can’t ask to borrow money.

    Of course, having 100 or more real friends would be unruly. You’d never have enough time for all of them and it would cost a fortune to treat each one every now and then to a movie or dinner. The good news is that Facebook friends are free. No one expects gifts, not real ones anyway (the service does make it easy to send virtual presents, such as digital birthday cakes). That said, an abundance of Facebook friends will cost you plenty in terms of time and emotional energy.

    Part of the reason it’s so easy to acquire so many friends on Facebook is that it’s difficult to reject a request to be someone’s friend. Even if you don’t know the person that well, or at all, most of us don’t want to appear to be a jerk. Each potential friend who approaches you is almost certainly a friend of a friend, or at least a friend of a friend of a friend, and who among us wants to be known as a surly curmudgeon vehemently opposed to befriending our friends’ friends—and their friends’ friends? And so on. Yes, even online, friends can quickly become overwhelming, yet there’s something heartwarming in the notion that we are all no more than six degrees away from each other, not to mention Kevin Bacon, who himself has a Facebook page. (His middle name is Norwood, by the way.)

    If you join Facebook you can be certain of at least one friend: me. But first you’ll need to send me a friend request, one that includes a note telling me how much you enjoy my column. Then we’ll be best friends forever—or until one of us annoys the other. Whichever comes first.

    Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
    Originally published in the April 2009 issue.

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