Facing Facebook

Facing Facebook

I have very mixed feelings when it comes to Facebook, very much of a love-hate relationship. I find that I often talk to people about it, about what friendship means in the context of Facebook, how it can be so trite and pointless, and yet, how much I can say with confidence that I’ve benefitted from it. Ironically, I felt the urge to express my thoughts and feelings through a Facebook note.

It took me a long time to get on the Facebook bandwagon (and, before anyone asks, the line is yet drawn at Twitter). I found funny being told that I was “now friends” with so-and-so, even though I’d been friends with that person for years. Someone mentioned how much funnier it was with family members. So I’m “now” friends with them, what was I before?

Aristotle talks of three levels of friendship. The first is one of pleasure, essentially buddies with whom one hangs out and has a good time. Next come friendships of mutual benefit, co-back-scratchers, as it were, something with which it would be easy to equate “networking” as the word is used nowadays. Finally, there is the highest friendship of all, whereby the parties act to improve one another, to elevate each other’s souls. Very deep and very high at the same time.

I’d say that Facebook cannot quite provide for the lattermost. In fact, even for the first kind, Facebook can only be a tool, a means to organise and achieve, say, a movie-watching night. I would say that Facebook is much more prevalent in the sphere of “networking”, and of the very superficial keeping in touch (“Oh, so she’s working at that company now”, “I guess he moved there to go to college”, “Must have lost weight, look at that picture”), and also in being exposed to news, articles, videos. At the same time, I must confess having found a whole bunch of old friends, and even actually meeting up with one or two of them, sometimes quite by chance, all due to Facebook. I guess, as with everything, the user determines the ends of the tool, and, thankfully, Facebook allows for much leeway in its usage.

Back to the friendship question, I admit that not all of my friends are people with whom I am well-acquainted. I have a bunch whom I barely know, a few that I’ve never really met, some organisations or activist groups, and, actually, I even have one or two “accidental” friends, like the guy who has the same name as someone else. And then there are many people who’ve “friended” me, and I don’t know what to do about it, so they’re all there, awaiting a response. Some, I admit, are people whom I’m supposed to know, based on their information, but, sorry, whom I just don’t remember. And many are just random chaps. (I especially find funny the one guy who wants “to reach out to another Armenian”; we share 43 friends, without even knowing each other! Clearly, he isn’t the only one just reaching out. I’d wager that also says something about Armenians and our more natural, more immediate networking, reflected in the computer age.)

Part of my pseudo-dilemma is that, on the one hand, I can’t bring myself to “unfriend” anyone, but, even more, I can’t bring myself to push the ignore button for a friend request. I know people who do regular purges of their friends’ lists, but, that’s not for me, I couldn’t possibly get rid of anyone. If there is some legitimacy to being a Facebook friend, then what would it mean to suddenly cease being one for no apparent reason? It’s one thing if there is a real-life falling out as a consequence of which one is “unfriended”, but that’s different than deleting someone because there hasn’t been any communication for a few months, especially if simply scribbling something on one’s wall qualifies as valid communication.

It’s remarkable, you know. I can fully appreciate how immensely life changed from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation to how we do things today because of technology, telecommunications, computers and the internet, but I didn’t think that, within my own generation, there could be a qualitative shift as well. I mean, I remember for myself when there weren’t any computers or the internet for that matter, and I certainly recall how much having a cellphone changed everything. But even within these newer aspects of life, innovations like Wikipedia and Facebook or iPhones and now the Droid have managed to pull off changes which it would perhaps be unfair to compare with the arrival of computers as such, but which have still managed to put in place changes in the way things are done that are significantly different from what existed before. I see (and hear!) GPS navigation systems, and street view on Google, and it partially freaks me out, but it is also unquestionably mind-bogglingly amazing.

A friend was telling me about Google’s recently-launched Nexus phone, which has apparently transcended the “smartphone”, creating a whole new category, the “superphone”. Facebook, for its part, seems to have come up with a different mode by which one maintains acquaintances and even one’s place in society, perhaps to be treated as a new category in turn. I would hesitate to refer to it as any new sort of friendship outright, as friendship is truly a holy thing, and, for me at least, means something quite sublime, difficult to encompass in a website.

Facebook might have altered methods of communication and eased the ability to share, it has perhaps made social lives more accessible in many ways, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that friendship means wholly something else now. However, I am myself admittedly using terminology such as “friending” and “unfriending” people, and if, before, I would say, “Yeah, I know him; we were at school together”, or “She and I participated in that conference, that’s how we know each other”, I can now add “And we’re Facebook friends”. Surely there is something altogether new about that.