My teenage niece has Facebook friends in her hometown to whom she has never spoken a live word. For some mysterious reason, she would never even acknowledge these people if she were to see them at the grocery store. Did she inherit my unfortunate lack of social skills, or has the popularity contest of life taken on a whole new dimension? I suppose flesh and bones interactions these days might break the spell of who everyone is trying to be in cyberspace.
My own friend-scape is an organic and evolving thing, based on common interests, shifting loyalties and a great deal of happenstance. There is no real rhyme or reason to how we all know one another, but lately I have been wondering what my life would be like if I had been more socially adept and focused all these years. Maybe I would be famous, or rich.
Awkwardness didn't play very well in college where the most popular guys in the room always spoke the loudest, usually about sports. It took forever to find out who I wanted to hang out with, and even longer to know if they wanted to hang out with me. By then I was cut loose on the sea of possibilities known as adulthood.
Still the whole idea of "networking" when it comes to making friends has always seemed a bit creepy and elitist to me. Doesn't it eventually lead to stepping over the homeless person on a sidewalk, rather than picking them up, because we have some pressing social engagement?
The father of one of my old girlfriends once told her, "You marry who you meet. It's as easy to fall in love with a rich guy as it is to fall in love with a poor guy." I had to dump her and her father for their lack of faith in romantic destiny. I like to think we meet whom we meet and love whom we love based on deeper mysteries than the size of our bank accounts, that our personal lives should never be circumscribed like gated communities. Relationships of all kinds help to make us who we are as people, and lasting friendships can emerge from unlikely places. "Don't talk to strangers" is about the silliest piece of advice I ever got as a kid.
Facebook allows us to be selective when finding friends, searching out those with common interests, but when everyone is thinking the same, is anybody really thinking?
Thankfully, Facebook is more than just a handy vehicle for an old girlfriend tour. It's an opportunity to present myself as the heroic protagonist in the epic story of my life. (My profile photo has me at the helm of a sailboat, but it's just a rental.) Facebook can also work like a kind of glass elevator for social climbing. (With careful networking, and some public chit-chat, I could become well known in the Facebook group: Helps Homeless People Up From Sidewalks.)
But to start with, you have zero friends on Facebook, which tweaks your deepest social anxiety, the you-may-have-to-spend-the-night-away-from-the-fire-and-out-of-the-cave anxiety. Two primary impulses ensue: (1) to swing the doors open wide to all and sundry like some kind of Facebook slut or (2) to be selective and Machiavellian, stealing friends from those loud guys I once knew in college (or, in my case, from my sister).
Somewhere between those two extremes I find myself balancing two basic needs: the need for friends and the need for privacy. Facebooking often begins with conversations that ended, and perhaps should have ended, long ago. But it also brings you to old friends who accepted you for who you were, on the street. Maybe you drifted together for mysterious reasons, and then drifted apart for no other reason than that your parents stopped paying your college tuition. Maybe you made a break to some wild blue yonder of the future.
In any case, running the gauntlet with my old crowd on the true landscape of my life reminds me that I had to go then and there before I got to the here and now. There are no shortcuts to growing up, and lasting friendships will always be more than a click away.
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org