Rethinking "Friends," Post-Facebook

As more people discover that I've switched off the social networks I'm getting quite a spectrum of response. I've certainly noticed a couple of colleagues look at me like I've gone off the deep end but many folks have dropped by my office to confess that they, too, have wondered about taking the plunge.

I'm still here, I assure them, and still very present online. It's not like I threw out my cell phone and stopped checking e-mail. (Although someone did suggest that as a possibility - to truly go off the grid one day. I don't think I'm quite ready for that yet.) But they have this look in their eyes like maybe, just maybe, they could stop or minimize the social networks, too. I'm not sure how many have tried it yet but I want to be clear that I'm not trying to convince people that social networks are all bad. Or that they have the same effect on everybody. But I do think their rapid rise in popularity has perhaps reached a tipping point when many folks are wondering about the true benefits and where they fit in.

One of the interesting sidebars to this experiment happened on Jan. 5 - my birthday. In 2008 and 2009 my wall was decorated with all sorts of well wishes and greetings and "gifts." It was a bit overwhelming actually but of course it was nice that people felt compelled to post something. And yet this year I only heard from the people in my life who know me well enough and know how to reach me. No Facebook reminder. Of course there's nothing wrong with reminders (it's not like social networks are the only place you can set them and I couldn't survive without my calendar), but when it comes to celebrations it seems as though online shout-outs have replaced things once thought rather impersonal like an e-card or a text message.

Now when I get those latter types of greetings it feels like someone really took the time to consider me as a friend or family member. With birthday well wishes on social networks it's like we felt obligated to do something and that dashing off a quick "Happy Birthday, man!" wall post or Tweet was somehow enough. Is it? Which would you prefer?

I also got to thinking about what defines the notion of a "friend." In addition to the great people I've met in recent years I've also been lucky to have the same close friends since high school back in Canada. We were dorky kids back then and now we're dorky adults who have (or are trying to have) kids (who are not dorky). These are some smart, caring, and wonderful people who I treasure. I would trust them with my life. But we're now scattered to the four corners of the Earth and it isn't easy to see each other in person.

Most of them are on Facebook but I wouldn't consider them overly active users. And yet a couple of years ago I realized that I'd drifted away from the more meaningful means of communicating (e.g. phone calls, Skype, e-mail, etc.) and relied too heavily on just reading status updates or checking out photos. Sure, it's one way to stay in touch but it's awfully shallow. Increasingly, I felt out of the loop. But I kept "broadcasting" what I was doing and thinking, oh well, this is how the world interacts today, with a curious but passive level of interest.

Since I stopped social networks I've made more of an effort to reach out in direct, one-on-one ways. Yes, we're all still busy and, yes, social networks like Facebook can offer a glimpse of what people are doing and a way to stay connected but didn't we have some of that before 2006? Certainly I place the blame squarely on me. I was the one who got too caught up in what social networks can offer and I'm fortunate that my friends stuck with me. Not that any of them ever approached me about it or accused me of being a poor friend. But I could sense it.

Certainly we all have "friends" who are perhaps better defined as acquaintances or people we like to see at functions or in a business setting. We like these people but they're not who we turn to in times of crisis. Perhaps social networks are best suited for those types of relationships, and I suppose you could organize your friends into different categories or have an alias page. But that seems like a lot of work. The problem for me is that I lumped my full-time friends in with my casual friends and "fans" and treated them all the same way. By gathering them together (all 1,664 of them) at a site like Facebook I flattened the definition of friendship and diluted their significance. But no more. (I also think that in three years I've probably managed to "find" all the people who I wanted to reunite with and maybe I need to let some of them go.) I won't say this whole project has been easy but so far it's been rewarding.

I do feel like a better friend. A real one.

More on this experiment soon - including the way we view our online selves versus our real-life selves. Until next time, stay connected.