I have 574 friends on Facebook. I chalk this up to the fact that (1) I've lived in a bunch of places and (2) I have a good track record for keeping friends. Most people on my friend list have been close friends at one time, and Facebook has allowed us to keep in touch without a lot of effort. It leaves the door open so I can jump back into those friendships (and often do) at any point.
But in this day and age, "friending" has taken on an entirely different meaning. There are people looking to build friendships with me online, people I've never met who have never even e-mailed with me. They send a friend request without even letting me know who they are. Which sort of begs the question: What does friendship mean in the Internet age?
Does having a lot of Facebook friends mean anything?
Or having a lot of followers on Twitter?
Or a lot of subscribers to your blog, comments on your Flickr photos or views of your video on YouTube?
The Bloggess had a wonderful post last winter about this when she asked her Twitter followers to vote for her in the Weblog Awards, and she came in 7th. "Also, I just want to point out that I have 5700 followers on Twitter and only got 547 votes so that means that 90% of my followers couldn't be bothered to push a button."
The post was tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at awards that tally votes, but it does beg a vital question. If someone I consider a friend asks me to do something, I do it in a heartbeat. I've dropped everything to type up a recipe, watch a friend's child or pick up a few extra things while grocery shopping. But if someone I follow on Twitter asks me to do something, does that carry the same weight? What if they're a good friend online, one I converse with daily over e-mail? Does that move me to action more than if they're someone I vaguely know from reading their blog?
Rancid Raves asks these very questions this week, especially looking at how online friendships change the way women communicate. Because, on the whole, women like to sidestep around confrontation. We let friendships go by not returning phone calls (or gently protesting that our lives are so busy when someone calls us on it instead of admitting that we just don't see the value in the friendship anymore). We are encouraging, nurturing and supportive. Which is not to say all women are like this, but my husband can count on one hand the number of times he has been kept up at night worrying about a friendship whereas I would need several additional limbs to even get cracking on tallying up the sleepless nights in the past last year.
Rancid Raves asks,
I do wonder how social media such as Facebook is affecting women in the way they communicate. Most women do not like to tell the truth in how they feel about someone or the relationship - I am most certainly guilty of this. I do not like hurting someone's feeling, so I will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation ... Will social media force women into being more genuine in friendships?
And then, with deep honesty, are those friendships suddenly more valuable? Don't we all treasure the friend who isn't afraid to tell us that we have spinach in our teeth (and save us from embarrassment down the road) or who steers us away from terrible decisions? There is something about the distance that being online affords that allows us to be more honest with one another -- whether we're being direct with our words or whether we're simply unfriending someone who no longer brings positive energy to our life.
Online, we can't just slip away with an unreturned phone call. Sites such as Facebook mark our decision to separate ourselves from another person by deducting a number from our friend count. If you've ever been on the receiving end of a dropped friend on Facebook, you know how hurtful and infuriating it can be to have tangible proof that it's not someone else's busy schedule or life getting in the way of your friendship -- it actually is all about you.
So what we have are friendships of possible lesser value that are hurting us more than our valuable face-to-face friendships. Which begs the question: Why would anyone subject themselves to a self-esteem roller coaster ride if the cost of emotions is high but the value of the product is low?
If you're feeling a little jerked around right now, it could be that online friendships vs. face-to-face friendships can't neatly be placed in a box, with all like friendships having the same value. That it's not a matter of one is silver and the other is gold, but that online behavior informs face-to-face behavior and vice versa -- so where are all of our friendships heading?
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