If I were shopping for friends, I wouldn’t choose someone like me. I don’t have a killer mojito recipe, a vacation home in Maui, or a cache of uproarious travel stories to share over dinner. I’m bad with birthdays. I don’t even play tennis.
But suddenly everyone wants to be my pal.
I recently created an account on Facebook, the social networking site for folks too old for MySpace and too lazy for LinkedIn. No sooner had I filled out a profile than I started getting “friend requests” from people I know. And people I barely know. And people I don’t know and don’t want to know.
“Joe Random has added you as a friend,” the alert reads. You click one button to “confirm” the friendship, another to “ignore.”
I find myself wishing there was another button: “Explain.” Perhaps I’m stuck on semantics, but the use of the word “friend” to describe these tenuous, meaningless digi-relationships has me confused. Who are these Facebook amigo-seekers and what exactly do they want from me?
The site itself claims: “Your friends on Facebook are the same friends, acquaintances, and family members that you communicate with in the real world.”
Only they’re not. Some of the “friends” I wound up with are a housewife from Long Island, a guy who never spoke to me in high school, and a complete stranger with a fondness for Lionel Richie.
My savviest Facebook friends — real friends, people I actually like — say the system is great for catching up with long-lost acquaintances. “It helps me keep tabs on what my friends are up to who I’m not likely to talk to more than once a year,” said a buddy with more than 500 “friends” in his collection.
How exactly do these online alliances differ from in-person ones? “Real-life friendships grow organically,” said a gal pal of mine. “Facebook friendships are superficial, instant, and often undesired.”
Whereas being courted as a real-life friend is flattering, being bombarded by would-be Internet cronies is vaguely threatening. You can’t tell if the request is a genuine way of saying “I like you,” an attempt to look popular, or an effort to sell you something.
“I worry about the repercussions of ignoring a friend request,” said my girlfriend who, like me, has more Facebook friends than she wants. “It feels weirdly hostile to say no to someone wanting to be your friend.”
Everyone, it seems, has unique criteria for defining a “friend.” “Any Facebook friend of mine has to pass the wedding-announcement test,” said a guy I know. “Would I tell that person if I was getting married?”
“I approve anyone who shares a number of friends with me,” said another fellow. “No friends in common, no way.”
A friend of mine who uses Facebook to market her product said, “A Facebook friend is someone whose money I wouldn’t mind taking.” Her only rule is “they can’t have creepy or pornographic images on their pages.”
It’s easy to be cynical about the notion of making and breaking human attachments with the click of a mouse: Where do factors like trust, affection, and loyalty fit into this binary puzzle?
Still, I think this new friend-logging system has something sincere at its core: a desire for fellowship. In the isolated glow of our laptop screens, we crave a visual tally of our flesh-and-blood connections, a pixelized reminder that we have (or at least once had) contact with walking, talking, Lionel Richie-loving beings.
Ultimately, there may be no connection between Facebook friendships and real ones. No platform interface, to muddle the medium’s jargon. And maybe the key to enjoying such cybercomraderie is to accept — and even celebrate — that distinction.
On a whim yesterday, I sent a friend request to comedian Bill Maher. Much to my shock, he confirmed me as a confidant — along with 1,663 other people. I’m not surprised he’s got so many chums. I’ve heard the guy makes a killer mojito.