31 Jul

Who’s Your Friend on the Internet? The Inauthenticity of Binary Friendship.

I just finished a book called The Brief History of the Dead. The first chapter of it was originally a short story published in The New Yorker, and you can see it by clicking these blue words. In the novel, there’s a character who tries to figure out how many people he knew in his life. He tallies 42,000, though he eventually comes to believe that the number must be more than that, perhaps closer to 50,000 or even reaching as much as 70,000.

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect it would be quite difficult to tally everyone I’ve known. And in many cases, the distinctions would be a little blurry. I certainly know the students I’ve taught and the parents I’ve conferenced with. I know the clerks at the grocery store, even if I can’t tell you their names. I know hundreds of colleagues and neighbors and teammates from over the years. But do I know the flight attendant who served me orange juice on my cross-Atlantic flight to Brussels in 1998? Do I know all the telemarketers who called my residence before I got on the national no-call list?

Surely, I can’t remember all the names of everyone I’ve met. And if I peruse my grading books from years past, I might chance upon a student whose name sounds familiar, but whose face I can’t recall. But when we bring various media into the mix, the gradations of knowing get more complicated. If my only contact with someone has been over the phone (the stubborn AOL customer service rep who wouldn’t let me cancel my account comes to mind), do I know him? What about instant messaging? I don’t chat with strangers, but in recent years, I have been known to opt for chat tech support over phone tech support. Last year, a rep from Linksys helped me get my wireless router up and running after it mysteriously crapped out. She had some plain Jane name — like Jane or something — but I’m pretty sure that a lot of those tech support people, especially the ones based in India, take on a more American-sounding name. So I likely never knew her name.

But there are plenty of people on the internet whose real names are withheld for some reason or another. I’ve interacted with people in forums (again for tech support; forums are great for when your warranty is up and the company who made your failing device will no longer help you), but they have names like MicJagger and lordvader129. And I’ve actually spoken to people over xbox live who have names like Mr. FuzzyNickel (I called him Fuzzy for short).

And then there are “friends” lists. Though it may be difficult to identify who I know, it should be easy to label a friend, no?

Web 2.0 loves social networking. Facebook and Myspace are the most popular ones here in the States, but there are several others (shown on this map of the world based on their popularity), and there are, of course, other methods of becoming acquainted with someone. You can follow people on tumblr and twitter; you can “add as a contact” on flickr; you can become allies or rivals on pmog; you can join all sorts of hobby-based “communities” where you interact with others (poets.com is one); and of course, there are all sorts of internet dating sites (I know of at least two very compatible married couples who met over the internet, so it must work in some instances). The list goes on.

But for those of us who haven’t used the internet much for social purposes, the whole concept of friendship in cyberspace is really strange. Let me tell you about six fictional people who have (not actually) requested to be my friends on Facebook.
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