The Evolving/Devolving Culture of Connection: Social Media & Friendship

Recently, I had lunch with Louis Peitzman, a writer for tv.com. Louis and I met once at a college press junket in 2005: we shared a van together to a screening of Brokeback Mountain. Facebook was still shiny and new back then, and all of the college press members eagerly added each other as Facebook friends as soon as we got back to our computers (because this was before Smartphones with Facebook apps). I can’t even remember a specific conversation with Louis in 2005. But I added him because he seemed nice and funny, and we both wanted to be journalists.

About two years ago, the Facebook newsfeed algorithm decided that Louis and I needed to be friends. I started seeing him post links to his very funny — and helpful — TV reviews, and since he joined Twitter & Tumblr and began to cross-post updates to his Facebook wall I discovered that Louis and I had so. much. in. common. He lives in San Francisco and I live in L.A., but he comes down here sometimes for work. A spontaneous Facebook wall comment thread chat lead to the discovery that — hey! — Louis thought I was pretty amusing, too, actually remembered how we met, and reads my blog. We decided to have lunch.

Oh, Internet and Social Media, how you have changed the way we make, interact with and perceive friendship. Louis and I are friends because of the Facebook newsfeed. Go figure.  I met one of my best friends because I sat next to her on a bus at a Harry Potter conference in 2005… which I found out about on the Internet. I developed a relationship with my half-sister thousands of miles away (on another continent), because of the advent of email in my life in the late 90s. Of the regrettably few romantic entanglements I have had, ALL of them originated from online dating or interaction (no, not Craigslists’ women seeking men! XD).

Some of my closest friendships are with people I met on the Internet. The idea has become more normalized and accepted in society, but the issue of navigating this complex and slightly surreal world is ever-changing. As much as online relationships have been the making of me socially, I am concerned that it has  conversely and simultaneously brought about the ruination of as many friendships/relationships as it has created. The Internet and Social Media gives us more, more, more and sometimes we actually accomplish less, less, less — and communicate less often, less effectively or not at all.

Every once and a while, it strikes me that I’ve not been in contact with a good friend for a long time — sometimes more than a year (or two). I retreat to my email Inbox (one of the eight that I keep) or my Facebook messages to read their last, unanswered missive, feel like a horrible human being for not responding, poise myself to compose a response… then find due to the exceedingly long interim that to say all the things that need to be said and to proper catch up, I’d have to write an essay PLUS apologize for being a horrible person and friend, and I just collapse in a heap and give up. Perhaps I am just a miserable friend, or perhaps that old adage that one can never truly maintain more than five or six proper, good friends at a time is sadly true. I have a small circle of close friends, who for the most part are geographically nearby and/or on the same social networking & chat platforms as I am — a huge factor.

The thing is, in this wacky, crazy modern world, and for a nerd-type such as myself, the term “friend” is broad and the avenues by which one makes and interacts with these friends is often digital, based on social media, passing interests and brief locational stints. Americans are known for flitting about between various friends groups, as well as moving around far more than our European counterparts, but add to that a proclivity for taking a deep-dive into Internet communities AND the rise of social media, and you  have potential for a large, broad, far-flung sets of friends. I’ve lived in not one or two, but SIX different geographic locations for a year or more, PLUS I’ve played in the Internet sandboxes of several fandoms, over the last fifteen years. Lately, I’ve discovered odd and unexpected friendships with like-minded individuals via Facebook and Twitter, bound only by a random add/follow and a discovered appreciation of similar thoughts. That is something that wouldn’t have been possible ten, fifteen years ago, outside of the (select few) who engaged in fandoms. The new social (media) revolution of friendship.

Then, there’s Facebook. Facebook has COMPLETELY changed the way in which we connect with our “friends,” and who we consider friends. I have no doubt that I am close to certain individuals by sheer default of their frequent Facebook updates and the site’s algorithm that decides to feature them in my newsfeed. I also know that several friendships have fallen by the wayside in terms of actual, real contact and conversation, because I feel — and they must too — that everything I could possibly need to know I can check on their page!  It seems redundant to email with them, or chat or talk on the phone, because you/they have covered everything on their Info page/latest wall posts. I do this with my own siblings, for Christ’s sake. That is just WRONG.

Who or what do you even consider a friend nowadays, when many people have 700, 1000 or more of them on Facebook? Language is a powerful thing, and calling your social connections “friends” (on Facebook, Livejournal and other sites) implies a deeper connection that is often there. People who use Facebook strictly for a LinkedIn/Twitter hybrid — branding and business — may not be bothered by the term, but anyone who started out on Facebook as a real friends network and gradually branched out to broader social and networking applications can get confused. Are these really my “friends”? Which ones are friends, and consider me their friend, and which are vaguely tenable networking connections/followers? I’m hovering at a steady 400 and even that seems ridiculous — I know I do NOT realistically have that many “friends.” I have that many personal connections on Facebook (though some of them were impulse adds that I’m now questioning), but I’d say fewer than 30 of them are “real” friends. And from that number I only speak to or see on a regular basis 10-15 of them (if I’m lucky). Yet through the tetchy newsfeed algorithm I’ve become acquainted and feel “closer” and “more in the know” about a random subset of “friends” and feel less “connected” to real friends who simply don’t update a lot.

It’s easy to be spread thin — LiveJournal, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Gmail, AIM, MSN, Yahoo! Messenger, Blogger, WordPress, etc. etc. etc. — so many social media platforms, so little time. My closest friendships, without a doubt, are not only with those friends who are geographically close at any given time, but with those who frequent the same social media and chat platforms. My friends who have the same proclivity for GChat I talk to on a daily basis, and that tool has bridged the gap of distance with those friends who are thousands of miles away. But the friends who preferred MSN or Yahoo messenger? We simply stopped talking. Because I use GChat and AIM. My friends who don’t/can’t/won’t text? Hear from me less. Those who maintain active Facebooks and Twitter feeds I feel even more interconnected with — we operate in the same space, are on the same page.

From being spread thin also comes overload and shut-down. We are bombarded with so much information and demands for our attention – large friend’s networks, work, tv, news (feeds), social media, chatting, Smartphone apps, family, relationships, etc. etc. Even the most adept multi-tasker is apt to shutdown when the noise becomes unbearable. I am prone to this — sometimes the only way to stay sane, grounded and not whirl into yet another (quarter?) life crisis is to stop, focus and ignore. If I can’t juggle AIM + GChat + 8 email Inboxes + Facebook + Twitter + LiveJournal + blogging PLUS work/family/relationships, I have to drop some, and I have. But with that comes losing the friends and connections and oftentimes progress (branding or otherwise) you’ve made in those spaces. The Internet has an incredibly short memory — if you’re not there, in it, active all the time, the it Internet moves on. Reintegrating, especially into networks such as Twitter and LiveJournal, takes so much energy and time, it’s often easier to stay cold turkey, and write off that part of your life/past.

This brings me to the complex social workings of online fandoms, which have lead to the sharpest and most painful truncations of friendship. For many years I was heavily and happily entrenched in Harry Potter fandom, spending hours each day on LiveJournal, updating my own LJ and constantly scrolling & refreshing my friends’ list. For nearly five years I was intimately acquainted with the every day lives of a large circle of friends — thoughts, feelings, and, yes, a lot of Harry Potter blather. From LJ came long chat sessions, group chats, email chains, comment threads, love memes, debates and eventually real-life epic all-night parties at HP conventions.

Then I left. The dirty thing about fandom is once you leave — whether it’s because you’re no longer interested in the topic, or you’re sick of the drama or your real life simply gets busy and exciting — 95% of your “friends” forget about you. If you’re not actively involved, you’re not friends. Sometimes this isn’t even intentional, but similar to the “if you’re not on my preferred chat program, we probably won’t talk” conundrum. Updating an LJ regularly takes a lot of precious time and effort, as does keeping up with a friend’s list. Many expect that if you want to keep up, you’ll read their LJ. If you’re not on LJ, you’re not getting their life updates (and you’re not commenting to show that you’re reading), and you miss big news and happenings. People that I’m close to and even real life Facebook friends only update their LJ and NOT their Facebook, so I’ve missed many a life happening. And once I cottoned on to it, I felt like a bad friend for commenting months later. So I wouldn’t say anything at all. From the sphere I reached a deeper lever of friendship with several people — Harry Potter was something we happened to have in common but rarely talked about — and it’s those few that I have maintained a friendship with. If they’re on GChat, Facebook and Twitter :/

More and more lately I am feeling disconnected from certain aspects of my life and my past, and am questioning how social media and the Internet has both evolved and devolved my ability to create and maintain meaningful connections with people. Some of the most important people in my life are only there because of modern doodads and my online social habits. Conversely, I’ve lost touch or feel myself losing touch with key individuals and feel hopeless to stop it — how do I write that embarrassing email, what do I do if they just won’t chat or text (and I really want to communicate that way), do they think I don’t care about them because we’ve lost touch? There are natural ebbs and flows to relationships, but modern tech and means have skewed what qualifies as “natural.” Anyone over the age of, say, forty likely thinks its crazy to lose touch with someone because they don’t have a GChat account or active Facebook. In my world, that’s just the way it is.

When did it get like this? I used to write letters and talk on the phone. Now I rarely do either (and the only person I ever call is my mother). Perhaps much of my disconnection is from moving so often and far-flung (friends being first five, then eight time zones away impedes steady communication), and is merely compounded by the connected/disconnected contradictory nature of the Internet. My experiences with fandom and Facebook are not universal, but neither are they unique. The more noise there is, the harder it is to focus and listen. And there’s a LOT of noise out there, especially for the Millennial generation (and our cousins, the X-ers).

The world has never seemed closer, yet a tangible concept of “friendship” never seemed so far away.

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