Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Oh, the Humanity: Reflections on Reaching the 100 Friend Mark on Facebook

"Half the people you see these days are talking on cell phones
Driving off the road and bumping in to doors.
People use to spend quite a bit of time alone
I guess nobody's lonely anymore."

--Greg Brown, "Cept' You and Me, Babe."

"Where have all my friends gone?
They've all disappeared."

--The Jayhawks, "Blue."

I recently passed a curious milestone: I reached the 100th friend marker on Facebook, the internet social networking utility I joined somewhat reluctantly several months ago. The response of said friend, Keith Bridges, artistic director of Charter Theatre, perhaps said it all: "Dude, that's just sad."

There are, in fact, people out there with over 300,400 friends, but why quibble over the math? At what point, exactly, do you become a Facebook whore? But then something happened that got me thinking about this phenomenon, even more than the endless invitations from the site to become a werewolf, a vampire or a zombie, or the quizzes to determine what city, James Bond movie or brand of underwear is most like me -- with answers available only if you have the audacity (or shamelessness) to pass it on to 20 more "friends."

I got a friend request (number 107) from the girl I took to my 9th grade homecoming dance in Milwaukee. Actually, to say I "took" her is a bit misleading, as it suggests that a)I did the asking and b)that I had a vehicle to take her in. Neither was true. I was still at that awkward age where I was much too shy to ask anyone on my own, and even in a recent e-mail, she acknowledged what a good "sport" I was to go along. Adding to the angst was that my sister chaperoned us to the dance and the restaurant beforehand, as I had no car. Photographic evidence of the night (Polaroids show me with a suit my mom dressed me in and an expression similar to those in hostage videos from the Middle East--I had a major stick up my butt) was the source of endless ribbing for years afterward.

The picture that accompanied the request showed her with her baby girl. She located me because we had a "friend" in common, the person who is organizing the 20th reunion at the high school I went to briefly in Milwaukee (which I left after the 9th grade when we moved to Philadelphia, for reasons that had nothing to do with the homecoming dance). I put friend in quotes because my chief memory of this person was a fight we had in the 7th grade during gym. The scene: Outside, playing softball. I was catching, he was pitching. I may have said something like, "Can't you get one over the plate?" He then beamed me in the head with the ball. I rushed toward the mound. Mayhem ensued. Though I think I was operating largely in self-defense, we both got detentions. My "friend" had a reputation for being what we would have then uncharitably called a "spaz," and I will never forget the subtle smile that appeared on the face of my otherwise mild-mannered English teacher when he accosted me in the hall, and asked, "Is it true that you beat up...."

And there was my friend's photo on my computer screen, 20 years older (with tattoos, holding baby boy.)

There are further odd connections in my burgeoning pile of Facebook friends:

*The best friend of a girl I dated in high school in Philadelphia, who unbeknownst to both of us, had been doing props in DC at the same time I was getting back into theater.

*The person who played the loyal lieutenant to my corrupt colonel in an amateur production of "A Few Good Men" in college. He also lives in the area and currently works for the state department.

*Two close high school friends that were part of a comedy troupe I performed in during high school. One is a vice-president of a medicinal rubber company (it's not what you think) and the other is a film director in New York.

*The assignment editor of the newspaper I worked at in Albany, now flak-ing for a local college, whose favorite question was, "Hey Brownstein, where's my page one story?"

I think there needs to be a new word for the weird cognitive dissonance, the sense of compressed time bridged instantaneously, that comes from reconnecting with old memories after getting "friended" on cyberspace. Maybe "webui" or "netstalgia."

Don't get me wrong. For the most part, it's incredibly exciting to have people I was once close to back in my life. In some of these cases, we had previously tried to find each other through more conventional means, and discovered one another purely by accident (or a degree of separation) on Facebook. But it sure makes repression rather difficult. The phrase "The past is not dead; it's not even the past" takes on a whole new meaning when the past sends you e-mail with photo attachments.

A final note: There also needs to be a new word for people on the opposite end of the spectrum. I am not proud of this, but as of this writing, I have 7 Facebook friends whom I've never met, and 15 who I've spoken to only briefly.

What does that say about me?

Perhaps I should put a poll on my blog.


Brian said...

it says that you are someone who alot of people want to be your friend. I know the monkey sphere is only so big, but you can make an exception.

(google monkey sphere if you dont know what Im talking about)

Alyson said...

One reason why I quit the old blog and started over was due to the burgeoning readership, particularly by people who didn't know me. I found that very intimidating. I have a myspace page and 11 whole friends. At least two of them are not real people. Haven't quite warmed to Facebook. I feel like I have enough crap out there as it is...

Mr. Odney said...

Googling the monkeysphere just sounds dirty, but I think I will make it the title of my memoir.

I did just that, and this was the first hit.

Funny stuff.

Brian said...

I'm glad you found the philosphy of the monkey sphere.

It's always good to have you in my monkey sphere.

Jim said...

I'm no expert on the subject of social networking sites, but reading your entry only strengthens my basic impression that they provide a very revealing glimpse into the basic introvert/extrovert split that divides the human species. For extroverts, I can only imagine that Facebook is the greatest thing since sliced bread, since it clearly allows them to cast a much wider social net, dredging up relationships from the past or creating new relationships with total strangers. And I guess that's great for them. But as a committed introvert, the prospect of "reconnecting" with people I've lost touch with or (gasp!) allowing a whole lot of strangers into my life, even on a superficial level, is beyond horrifying.

Assuming such a survey could be done, I'd be very curious as to how many Americans are on Facebook, MySpace, etc. and how closely that percentage of the population correlates with the extrovert population.

Mr. Odney said...

Well, I'm really glad I browbeat you into making a comment, Jim.

Perhaps if you were more extroverted, you'd stand up to me, and say, "No more!"

I kid. I kid because I love.

I think you make a very good point, although I suspect that facebook and the like are split evenly between extroverts and introverts who are not comfortable with their introversion--in other words, they want to be extroverts.

Jim said...

That seems very possible, though it surprises me that those people don't embrace their introversion.

Brian said...


will you be my friend?

Jim said...

I'm sorry, Brian, but at this early stage in our relationship, I just don't feel ready for that sort of commitment. After all, we really only just started seeing each other. How about a "well-wisher?" Or perhaps "Co-Andy's Blog Critic?"

Mr. Odney said...

I'm really glad that I've provided a forum for the two of you to get together. Truly, I sense a Love Connection.

Leta said...

And I was feeling all good about my 92 friends on Facebook (most of whom I actually have met) until I find that you are leaving me in the dust.

NTS: Must friend more people than Andy.

Câmera Digital said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jeff cothren said...

Beautiful post, Andy. Facebook has been an unnerving and simultaneously invigorating experience.