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Wednesday
Jan142009

Facebook friendship

Time to revisit what stills seems to be the social network du jour, Facebook.

Thanks to Facebook, I am now 'in touch' with a hell of a lot of people that I haven't seen in a very, very long time. Old school pals, former band mates, general weirdos I don't know particularly well - the list goes on. There's even the odd ex-girlfriend in there, and, hardy har, some normal ones too (if you're reading this in Facebook, you can try to work out which category you belong to).

I'm not sure why, but I tend to accept most friend requests, and befriend most people I see popping up as 'somebody I might know'. It's probably fair to say that I am a textbook example of what is known as Facebook Sluticus - that weird specimen that adds literally anyone, including a friend's friend's milkman, as a Facebook friend. Part of that, no doubt, is due to the fact that I am just nosey about your life, and I want to sell you a CD. (Sorry if I've just devalued our Facebook friendship, dear reader, but there you go).

But despite being reacquainted with all these figures from my past, I don't really have a relationship to speak of with most of them. I occasionally comment on somebody's status, or write a bit of crap on their wall, but that's about it. With one or two exceptions, the only Facebook friends I ever see in real life are the ones I hang out with anyway.

That's not to say for a moment that I don't want to see my 'virtual' set of friends. It's just that, well, it never seems to happen. Plans are made to meet up, but we never get round to it; somebody's pet rabbit dies, they bail out, we don't catch up. I'm not sure why this cancellation nearly always occurs - unless my Facebook friends are trying to tell me something - as everybody involved always seems very keen on meeting up. It just never seems to happen.

I'm not alone in observing this: lots of other Facebook users I've spoken to have described Facebook friendship in exactly the same way. The phenomenon generally consists of getting back in touch with somebody that you lost contact with (and being very pleased to be reacquainted with them), only to then never really meet up, or to have very little contact with them afterwards - online or offline.

The sentence I usually hear straight after this description of Facebook friendship is this: "Oh well, you lose contact with people for a reason, don't you?". And that sentence is usually followed up with an implication that the reason contact was lost was because the friendship wasn't all that anyway.

I don't necessarily agree with the idea that you lose contact with people because they're a pain in the ass. I like many of the Facebook friends I never see just as much as those 'normal' friends that I see all the time. But I do agree with the idea that you lose contact with people for specific reasons. In my case, there are two reasons: geography, and lack of time.

With regard to geography, there are plenty of Facebook friends who I would like to go for a pint with. But they are scattered around the globe. And even when the Facebook friends in question are London-based...well, London's so big that a round trip to see some of them can take three hours.

The other reason I've lost contact with (sometimes dear) friends is because the older you get, the less time you seem to have. Part of that is down to the fact that as you age, you tend to acquire more responsibilities every year (kids, high-maintenance partner, more work - delete as appropriate) and less time for that pint with, say, the Facebook friend. And time seems more precious, because psychologically, the years seem to fly by so much faster. An old work colleague of mine (who incidentally I've yet to encounter on Facebook) maintains that this is due to the "telescopic effect of ageing" - numerically, every year is a smaller fraction of your life to date, and is perceived as being shorter as a result. Anyway, it certainly feels as though the closer you get to clog-popping time, the more everything in your life starts competing more heavily for your minutes...and my guess is that the Facebook friends who you haven't seen in aeons get pushed down the priority list in favour of a curry and Newsnight.

Interestingly, if geography and "time-poverty" are the drivers behind friendship loss, they are the engine of Facebook friendship gain - and explain, to an extent, the success of this social network. Facebook is so good at reunfications (however superficial) precisely because it is accessible globally, and because it saves people time: it would take ages to ring everybody up to see what they're doing. Why bother when it all comes up in a news feed?

Facebook certainly satisfies my curiosity: it is intriguing to see what the class babe looks like ten years on, or to see if the school bully's children look resemble him. Or if that pet rabbit makes it through the night. On paper, though, there's lots of reasons to dislike it - it's clearly a nosey parker's paradise; it trivialises friendship; it was designed for advertisers as much as for individuals...

...But do I like it? I don't know why, but I do. Maybe it's because without it, chances are you probably wouldn't have read this.

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