I grew up in the prototypical suburban sprawl of Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. It’s densely filled with humans – like, millions of humans. Yet not one of them on my street was my age growing up. Some of my friends in other parts of the Valley (sorry Central and Silicon Valleys, San Fernando Valley is the Valley) caught luckier breaks and fraternized with their neighbors, but in the end I think we all pretty much suffered the same fate.
The transition to college differed strongly from the no-less-subtle change of schools I faced on four other occasions. Three graduations and a switch of elementary schools taught me that your friends are the people you see every (week)day, and while you can see someone you like from time to time and your interactions with them feel like you haven’t missed a beat, you aren’t creating memories with them at the same rate, so they can’t really be considered friends in the same way. These infrequent friends are certainly not acquaintances; you know them too well or like them too much. Yet, I hesitate to call them friends without some sort of prefix; thinking about some of these infrequent friends evokes feelings such that I know they still occupy emotional territory, but that space is more a scrapbook than a scrapbooking club.
From preschool to two different elementary schools to middle school and high school, I lost friends at every transition. I think a great many people have, maybe all the people who lived in areas like mine. If someone didn’t live just down your block, you probably didn’t see them because they lived miles away, so school was the place I knew I’d regularly see people my own age and home was where I interacted with my family and TV.
Somewhere around sixth grade I got a MySpace account. I had a pruned Top 8 and thought this social networking thing would grow my bonds with my classmates (former and contemporary) without bound. Surely, we would all be BFFs; that’s why we wrote it in each other’s elementary school yearbooks. However, we were already failing on our yearbook promises: Those of us who went to different middle schools spoke dramatically less, even with MySpace and our propensities to lie about our ages on the internet. The one social network just wasn’t enough. We could talk and express our teenage angst with each other just fine, but we were not building experiences. Sharing a meme pales in comparison to the organic emergence of an inside joke.
When Facebook came along for the masses to use, I had entered high school and shed a fair number of my middle school friends. Ironically, it was not a friend who got me on to Facebook, but rather a stranger who thought I was a friend. He invited me to try Facebook, and upon adding me, asked why I was starting shit with one of his friends. I realized I didn’t know who this person was and promptly unfriended him, leaving me alone on the digital platform because Mark Zuckerberg isn’t as friendly as Tom.
While everyone you are connected with on the platform is your “friend,” Facebook knows deep down that you care about some people more than others or only want to hear from certain people
Between MySpace and Facebook, Facebook definitely facilitates interpersonal interaction better, and it knows it’s what’s going to keep it afloat, so Facebook throws money at making the best messaging app. However, in the end, it won’t be the thing that makes relationships. While everyone you are connected with on the platform is your “friend,” Facebook knows deep down that you care about some people more than others or only want to hear from certain people, and their algorithms do the work of filtering out Facebook friends you aren’t actually close with.
On Facebook, sharing is important while making memories is not. After all, Facebook has a share button, not a “let’s make a memory” one. You are worth your attention, so you would be worthless to Facebook if your attention was really on other people where it has to be, to be in the moment. Facebook is the publish/subscribe model of friendship, a model of passive emotional commitment, the highlight reels of our lives without the opportunity to make a highlight on the platform. It’s voyeuristic friendship at its the utmost. This is not to say that Facebook is bad or wrong, just that it doesn’t keep the party going like Mark Zuckerberg wanted in “The Social Network.” It’s free because you are the product, not because the guys running the party are so cool.
What Facebook gives us is an excuse to not do the real maintenance of a friendship. A friendship is a process as much as a connection; a Facebook friendship is quite literally a set of nodes and edges, and the maintenance of the friendship through posting is scrapbooking. While we’re all scrapbooking together on Facebook, it’s more like a digital scrapbooking convention based on meta-experience, where we congratulate each other on pretty scrapbooks but generally don’t get past the small talk.
A snap is a fresh piece of someone’s life, with all the beauty and mundaneness that comes along with it.
So, when I Facebook-stalk a friend from middle school, I try to think about who that person is now and if I can really glean that information from the posts and comments they make. I can’t, not to a very large degree, anyway. I can see they like some Democrat running for office or they got a job doing something I never knew they dreamed of doing, and I kind of feel caught up on their life in the way you feel caught up on a TV show when you jump in after three seasons and get a two-minute recap at the beginning of the first episode. I don’t send them a message because I’m afraid all I would be able to say is, “Hi, how are you, who are you?”
Snapchat does better in allowing you to keep up with your friends. Also a pub/sub social network, it differs from Facebook in that you are getting the now, not the then. A snap is a fresh piece of someone’s life, with all the beauty and mundaneness that comes along with it. It’s not a moment on the highlight reel but a moment of humanity that says, “You can’t be here all the time with me, but you don’t have to miss out on the little moments.” Facebook is about the big moments; it literally has “Life Events” you can add to your wall. Snapchat’s still just sharing, but it is on the cusp of participatory, a fancy UX consolation prize to truly shared experience. The face filters are neat, though, and the ability to alter reality in the pictures creates a really dynamic kind of communication that can’t be replicated in real life.
Gaming with people online is a whole other ball game. I think it’s one of the only places online that offers an arena for a real friendship to emerge and be maintained. The process of gaming has the elements of cooperation and competition that stimulate human interaction and facilitate the organic experiences that make a friendship real. However, social gaming has limitations, and while I do not believe someone must see their friend for them to be a friend, a lack of in-person experiences tailors the friendship in a certain way.
While gaming people may find that they have a lot in common, without the relationship diverging from the sphere of social gaming, it is not generalizable to other experiences and is thus a narrow kind of friendship based only on a very certain kind of experience. These niche friendships are like members of a scrapbooking club who only ever see each other when actively scrapbooking together.
When I go back and Facebook stalk a friend from elementary or middle school, I’m not the same person who looks at that profile picture, nor is the person I’m looking at.
The subjective human experience is a strange, marvelous thing, and I won’t try to explain it except for its persistence and only then because it relates to how we make and keep friends. Sometime after you were born, you woke up in a different way and haven’t quite shut off that way since. While sleep is an obvious hiccup in the continuity of experience, we still dream, a conscious and memory-making experience despite it being flanked by unconsciousness.
My point is while you are awake enough to be of any use to yourself and others, you exist in a state of experiential continuity, a linear progression through your day with time slices of change so small that you only recognize the integration of those pieces as your life. While you only notice the summing of the parts, your neurons are doing the dirty work of processing the pieces of your day and in the course of that processing, changing connections and firing or not firing and whatever else it is neurons do. Day by day, your brain changes at a resolution too fine-grained for an MRI. Eventually, these minuscule changes allow you to look back on a younger version of yourself and despair at your horrendous fashion sense.
When I go back and Facebook stalk a friend from elementary or middle school, I’m not the same person who looks at that profile picture, nor is the person I’m looking at. We cannot possibly be the same, which isn’t to say that we couldn’t still be friends. The friendship would just have to be revamped or change in some way. Playing catch-up with a friend after a couple years is difficult and just not the same process as actively being friends. It’s showing each other a scrapbook instead of creating the scraps that go into the book. It’s seeing a snapshot of someone’s brain out of the context of years of their lives.
In high school, around the time I got a Facebook, I started frequenting 4chan, the notorious imageboard. A somewhat active member of several boards, I tended to keep my power level to myself in real life and simply enjoyed the online community in the kind of perverse and sick way it’s intended to be enjoyed. It was a safe way to laugh at someone else’s expense and the “at their expense” had already happened through no fault of my own, so I felt relieved of the obligation to be guilty.
Anyway, the site was a community in a very real way, with community discussions and activities sometimes bleeding onto other sites. What fascinated me about 4chan and what has helped it survive is really the fact that it is a community. The people there are experiencing together, changing their brains together and creating the scraps that go into the greatest scrapbook of them all: internet archives. Yet, in this community of active and strange users, the layer of anonymity prevents friendship from emerging in a place that could deeply use it. Users of the site are forced onto other less anonymous platforms like Skype to develop friendships. Friendship needs some sort of persistence of identity on both sides — a way to pick your friend out of the group — and that just cannot exist on a platform of silhouettes.
Toward the end of high school, I defected to Reddit. I found my way to a few subreddits with interests aligned with mine, but I never found a friend in the community. To me, it seemed that the semi-anonymity of Reddit enabled power users (Reddit celebrities) to dominate conversations at the expense of the little guys, without catalyzing friendships. Reddit doesn’t offer experience either though. The experiences on these sites are ultimately individual; only your brain changes as a reaction to the stimulation from the site, without anyone else around. Reddit offers discussions, not events. The events that do happen on Reddit are more often than not confined to a subreddit or two, eventually blowing over with everyone moving on because it probably didn’t directly affect them anyway.
To me, it seemed that the semi-anonymity of Reddit enabled power users (Reddit celebrities) to dominate conversations at the expense of the little guys, without catalyzing friendships.
During my freshman year of college, I bought fewer video games than any time in my life, since I no longer had an allowance big enough to buy them. I increasingly spent my time with people, getting involved in school and learning. My living situation changed dramatically: I went from a house of four to a house of nearly 40, with the mean age dropping significantly. Pendola House in Manzanita Village was its own dynamic community where the members made experiences with each other: a driving force in keeping the community together.
Then sophomore year came and we all pretty much moved out. Many of us moved in together in a housing complex at the end of Estero, which served as a kind of frat house for CCS students (and some non-CCS; we don’t discriminate). The community changed, but the experience-driven aspect did not. Us continuing residents kept the process of friendship going while more and more friends went their own ways.
Now in my fourth year in a new home, it pains me to think I might have already lost more friends than I’ve made in college. I’m not sure if it’s my fault as much as the natural way of shedding of friends every few years, something my whole life has taught me is normal. Seeing the acceptances to graduate schools across the country on Facebook, I’m immensely proud of what my friends have achieved, profoundly grateful that these people took any time at all to call me their friend.
I’m sad in a distant, quiet, looming way about the realization that I probably will not see many of these people many more times in my life. I am past the point of no return where most of my contemporary friends from college will inevitably turn into the pages of a scrapbook, our friendship and experiences reduced to nodes and edges on Facebook’s graph, living simultaneously in physical spaces and physical data centers, but only ever in those points of time from whence they came.
Benji Lampel wonders if the cycle of making and losing friends will continue our entire lives.