On Facebook & Friends

I was thinking the other day about all the friends I have on Facebook.  I had just logged into the site, which is something I don’t do often: despite understanding the functionality and appeal of Facebook, it’s just not my thing.  I clicked on the “Friends” link and “friended” a couple folks, which brought my total of virtual pals up to 138.  In reality I don’t have time for 138 friends, virtual or otherwise—I barely have enough time in each day for myself and my seven plants.  But that’s the lovely thing about Facebook “friends”—they’re almost exactly like succulent plants: drop the occasional Hey, how’s it going?, and you’re fine.  After confirming my last “friend” I was led to a page populated by what Facebook calls, “People You May Know.”

The “may” in that statement caught my eye.  It’s an interesting modality, and even though I’ve thought about it for some time since I’m still unsure what it’s trying to convey.  Is it a conditional statement, a hypothetical or even logically predictable spin into the web, such as, Because you know Gary and Gary knows Paul, we think that you too may know Paul?  If the “may” is conditional then is it bound by logic in the same way the antecedent and consequent of this very sentence are connected?  Or is the mood more subjunctive, as if the kind folks at Facebook were wishing, hoping or opining that Paul and I be friends?  If the latter, who are they to think that I would enjoy his friendship?   My hackles raised at such intrusiveness (I’ve met a Paul or two who have been schmucks), but more so I stood perplexed, a feeling that is not new for me when confronted with most contemporary technologies.  Regardless the mood of that “may,” I pressed on and cruised down the page, curious to meet these “People I May Know”.

It didn’t take long before I came across several People-I-Used-To-Know, such as my old high-school locker partner, Steve, whose present interests include hanging out with family/friends and working-out, activities that I approve of since both seem healthful and are a far improvement upon his high-school interests, which I recall mostly consisting of playing football and sniggering “fire, fire” and “you said balls” in what was, I must grudgingly admit, a stunning accurate Beavis-and-Butthead impression.  There’s also Chris, with whom I apparently attended college, though I must confess that even after scanning several photos I still can’t remember his face or anything about him.  But who am I to question the wisdom of Facebook?  The relevant thing is that Chris’s profession is listed as a “BI Consultant’.  I know nothing about BI or how one might consult with it, but given that good-ol’Chris seems like a capable guy I attribute to the field nothing short of humanity’s future prosperity, and in the days since I have felt a strong sense of consolation knowing that this person who may someday be my friend is only a click away should BI-related complications arise in my life.

After looking further I realized that a lot of the people Facebook thought I “may” know I in fact already do know.  Included in this category is my cousin Tim.  I am “friends” with all four of Tim’s siblings, who are also my cousins, but not with Tim himself, a fact that only perplexed me more about the “may” portion of the statement. There are other family members on this list, but the kicker was coming across my step-brother, John.   Admittedly, as step-brothers he and I have different last names, but given that for the past 20-some years his dad has been my step-father and my mother his step-mom, I would have thought this relationship to be pretty obvious to the folks at Facebook.  But then perhaps I’ve been projecting too much power to Zuckerberg et al—after all, they’re not God, yet.  I’m not disappointed by their oversight—John and I have never been close and no amount of Facebooking will solve that. Still though, it’s odd to be scanning a list of people I “may” know and suddenly realize, Hey, not only am I related to that person, we also used to live in the same house.

The last group of people was both the largest and the most baffling, and I’ve come to think of it as the How-In-The-Hell-Would-I-Know-This-Person? category. These people are located directly at the fulcrum where the “May” in Facebook’s reasoning begins to break-down, and is represented by the likes of Brandi, from Dubuque, Iowa, a location roughly 1,900 miles away from my home in Seattle.  Brandi’s picture shows a very young girl of probably six or seven years dressed in a fuchsia ball-gown with a silver “Little Miss…” something I can’t read sash draped across her chest.  She’s friends with Shannon, a woman who once gave me a free eye exam and to whom I haven’t spoken in at least six years.  I strained to make sense of the connection—For god’s sake how is it conceivable that I would know this person? I am yet to find an appropriate affirmation.  Then I came across Lyle, from Dixon, Nebraska, whose picture reveals a 50-ish year-old bald man posing next to a giant Mr. Potato-Head doll.  Lyle appears very happy, a feeling I suppose is only natural when partying with Mr. Potatohead.  He’s friends with Dan, who was my counselor at summer camp when I was 13.  That was 20 years ago, and I can’t remember having spoken with Dan since.  My head-scratching intensified.

I scanned further and realized that this category includes not one but two Bo’s, the first a male teacher in a small town in rural Alabama, and the other a housewife from the same city, rural Alabama apparently being a hotbed of androgynous Bo’s.  There’s Sonya, who lives in San Francisco and whose profile claims that she knows twelve different languages, including Pig Latin and White Russian.  There’s Sara who likes Arethra Franklin and Yosemite Park; Felicia who wants to “Keep Christ in Christmas”; Miroslav, who appears very stern and teaches theology at Yale; and Ubu, the black stuffed animal dog shown in various poses, including one in which he’s wearing scuba gear.  I cannot comprehend the algorithm that calculated that I “may know” a stuffed dog, but so go the mysteries of Facebook.

Facebook friends have always reminded me a lot of baseball cards, which when I was a young boy I feverishly collected—I bought and traded and maneuvered them with a zeal that, had I a brain for monetary advancement, should have driven me to become a Wall Street trader. The analogy isn’t intended solely to be disparaging: after all, collecting baseball cards was very important to me, most significantly as a social activity.  It was something that my friends did, and by participating in it I defined myself (the guy with two Tony Gwynn rookie cards), and that definition wrote great meaning upon my small world.

I suppose therein lies the ultimate appeal of Facebook for those of us not using it to coordinate the toppling of our governments: it’s something we do and share with others, whether or not we’re really friends in any traditional relational sense.  However, and I don’t want to impute nasty sentiments to anyone, this also gets at the core of my hangup with most of this: I’ve often felt like I am reduced to my capacity-to -be-someone’s-friend, whatever that means in this medium, and as such I am reduced to a thing that some people have obtained so that they can proudly display the size of their collection to others.  I understand that for some people it might feel good to say, “I’m friends with Aaron” in the same way it used to make me feel good to say, “I have two Tony Gwynn rookie cards”; the obvious difference is that baseball cards are pieces of cardboard wrapped in plastic (with the added bonus of some chalky, brittle pink gum), while I’m a real person.  Or I was, depending on how all this shakes out.

I fear that I’m starting to sound either dour or like some dilapidated Luddite, or worst of all, both.  I don’t feel like either—I simply don’t dig Facebook, and I’m yet to have a meaningful relational (i.e., “Friend”) experience as a result of using it. But it’s not going away any time soon, so I guess the best thing I can do is ask myself the one question that guides all of my major life decisions: What Would Oprah Do? Thankfully the answer is crystal clear: I know that she’d be open to the universe and affirm the positives it provides, which in this situation extends to a nearly infinite pool of people that someday I May Know.  And so I hereby solemnly swear that the next time I’m in Dixon, Nebraska, I’m going to look up Lyle, and the old hound-dog and I are going to find ourselves a Mr. Potatohead and have the sort of time that will make Charlie Sheen proud.

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