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.

# 1. Jerry. Jerry was a sub in the district who used to be around quite a bit a few years ago. I haven’t seen Jerry in a long time, and to tell the truth, I never liked Jerry. He was the kind of guy who, at lunch, would made comments like, “Well, after all, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Ha ha! That’s funny, Jerry. Go away.

#2. Louisa. Louisa is a student. She was in my class last semester and because rosters aren’t out quite yet, I’m not sure if she’ll be in my class this year, but since she’s going to be a senior, there’s a possibility. Louisa is a fun, engaged student, but a student nonetheless. And if I go to her profile I can see that she’s a member of the “Mr. Scott Appreciation Group” and the “OMG I Hate Ms. Schilling Group.” Being Louisa’s friend tips me off to all sorts of semi-sordid rants and confessions and mudslingings, and though Louisa herself is smart enough to keep her profile and comments quite innocent, if I’m willing to waste 30 minutes clicking around Facebook, I can find out how wasted Anne got last weekend and the extent to which Alex can’t believe he passed that math test (“Thanks, Nick. Wink, wink.”).

#3. Allison. Alli was a pretty good friend of mine in high school, though certainly not in the same general social group (her friends weren’t really friends with my other friends). Her dad had had cancer, and so had mine, so we connected well at least on one level. Alli was a year older than me, though, and when she left for college, we didn’t really talk at all afterwards.

#4. Ming. I met Ming when I was living in New Jersey one summer and he was pretty much the best thing about New Jersey and the surrounding states. Ming was and continues to be hilarious, but you can just as easily engage him in a conversation about the subtleties of language or the exploitation of third-world nations as you can end up rolling on the floor laughing at his anecdotes. I talk to Ming a couple times a year on the phone, and we try to reconnect whenever we’re in similar parts of the country, but geography keeps us apart.

#5. Jeff. Jeff is a freshman in college. Though he attended the school I teach at, I don’t really know Jeff. He was never in any of my classes. I may have worked with him in the writing lab once or twice. When I see his picture, he looks familiar enough to spark the following reaction: “Oh, I think I know him.” I’m pretty sure Jeff wants to get a lot of friends on his list.

#6. Ahmad. I don’t know Ahmad. I’ve never met Ahmad. I can’t tell you the first thing about Ahmad. I only know that he is a friend of one of my friends, which is enough to make me assume he’s not a spam profile. If I accept Ahmad’s friend request, I’m pretty sure I won’t end up being asked to click on links for “Adult Friend Finder,” or other such seedy sites.

So do I accept the friend requests for all six of the above? Here’s the thing about internet social networking: friendship is binary. One or zero. Yes or no. Black or white.

And on the internet, you have to give the relationship one of two names: 1) friends, or 2) not friends. If I reject Ahmad, there’s probably no consequence. But if I reject Jerry, Murphy’s Law would no doubt come into play, and I’d be forced to stare awkwardly across the lunch table at Jerry, who would get a one-month long-term subbing position in my department.

Chances are that Ahmad might be a really nice guy. And actually, the way you meet people in real life is often similar to how Ahmad has gone about trying to meet new people online — you get to know friends of friends.

But this brings up another problem with the online thing: permanence. You accept Ahmad’s request and that’s it. Friends for life. Of course, there’s always the option to take someone off your friend list, but then we end up with a third category to add to our first two: 1) friends, 2) not friends, 3) former friend. To avoid potentially awkward future interactions, it’s better just to keep all friends on the list and not remove anyone, right?

The way kids are doing it nowadays, they friend request someone immediately. You meet at a concert and the next morning, there’s a friend request waiting for you. That’s how these high school students can have upwards of 500 friends. Of course, they don’t actually think of it in the same way that we of the X-generation and upwards do. Being a facebook friend is not a commitment of any sort. It promises nothing.

Still, I would like to be able to have Ming comment on my profile using words like Beeotch. I would like to be able to post photoshopped pictures of my brother milking a cow. But since the majority of my “friends” are students of mine, I avoid such tomfoolery.

My proposal: tabbed friend groups.

Currently, facebook looks like this.

Facebook | Tim Storm
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

Anyone who’s a friend of mine can see this profile page, including my list of friends and whatever other people have posted on my wall (not pictured in this screen capture). My proposal would look like this (roughly):

Facebook | Tim Storm
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

In my redesign of facebook, when you log into your facebook page, you see a dashboard of sorts. It’s not what other people would see when navigating to your page. No, it’s completely private for you. And under the “Friends” menu at the top, there would be tabs, labeled somewhat neutrally here as Zones 1-5. I suppose you could rename the tabs. Like I might label mine “Students,” “Reconnections,” “New Possibilities,” “The Inner Circle,” and “Not Actually.” People in my “Students” zone would then see a Students/Zone 1 version of my profile, mostly consisting of comments from other students and maybe some notes I posted for them specifically. But the friends in Zone 1 wouldn’t be able to see the friends in Zone 2 or any of the content generated in Zone 2.

Of course, the more I think about all this, the more needlessly complicated it seems; on the other hand, friendships are actually complicated. But the whole point here is that facebook isn’t just about friends. It’s about relationships of all types, and, look, okay I’ll just admit it. Since most of my friends are students of mine, my facebook page is little to no fun. That’s all this is. A big personal gripe session wrapped up in pseudo-intellectual ponderings.

But of course, this raises another interesting sociological question inquiry: is the internet about Me or Us? Until next time . . . .

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