facebook, “friendship”

It’s funny how a fruitfly infestation can push other seemingly weighty yet related (ok, only to those on sleep deprivation) topics to the fore. Here’s one.

About a year ago, I registered for an account on Facebook. It seemed like a good thing to do, given I would be leaving my job soon, and I wanted a way to stay connected to friends from work and other remote places. I made connections based on this compound question – have I enjoyed this person’s company, preferably over a meal rather than a meeting break, or would I welcome the chance to break bread together? I did not think of it as a professional rolodex, an opinion only reinforced by the add-on apps. (Who is the most gorgeous? What are your favorite films? Who would you rather (fill in any blank) with? What are your chances of being hired by a new employer based on your responses, given that hiring managers are still, at the end of the day, people with their own biases and prejudices?)

While many of the people I connected with were people with whom I might talk patents, protocols, and policy, that was not the reason I would connect with the vast majority of them. After leaving my job, those personal connections became more important – and not only because I was becoming a pregnant hermit.

Now the “people you may know” box is filled with many I certainly do know (of), but wouldn’t accept an open container from (apologies for the dangling participle.) Some of the solicitations I receive are of a similar though not as extreme undesirability, given the presumption of friendship – “I worked with her, never contacted her after her professional services were no longer needed years ago, she must be my friend!”

As an example, I get repeat solicitations from someone who was in a related professional field who I have never met in person. He recognizes my name, though, and figures he should have me in his list. Unlike the career-oriented LinkedIn, facebook doesn’t allow you to send a mail to a connection request explaining why you might reject an enquiry. And honestly, on LinkedIn, I would accept an enquiry, as his profession is related to mine. So each month, when his request lands in my facebook queue (and always with a new photo) I hit ignore.

Yes, Facebook now permits you to categorize friends into different sub-categories or classes. I think I’d rather choose to ignore than go down that road.

Or maybe it’s the whole idea of debasing what a friend is that is getting under my skin.

The notion of community, largely abused by Internet entrepreneurs in the last decade, is now everything and nothing. Loose association is now open to people apart from their geography, even if economic status/access is still a predominant gating factor. It’s used to define and all too often aggrandize all sorts of self-identified groups of people, with no common requirement beyond an initial declaration.

The Web made it possible to mirror and grow social structures and interactions, but it didn’t implicitly say these would be second class interactions, that the worlds of atoms and bits were of equal stature even if they would be employed and explored in different ways. (Its inventor and early users would likely object vigorously to the notion that the Web exists as a secondary, auxiliary world.)

Yet, just as our fault tolerances for data appliances would be unacceptable for landlines, or cars, some think it’s ok to accept the essence or flavor of words online, instead of insisting on using them as they are meant.

And this is when I realize that my notions on language and meaning reveal that I am getting really old.

Michael Pollan writes about Chicken McNuggets in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and his son’s reaction to them. In dismissing a lawsuit against McD’s, a judge nonetheless described them them as “a McFrankensteinian creation of various elements not used by the home cook.” McDs took a huge PR hit, and went back to the lab to make something closer to a piece of chicken simply fried, though without doing the obvious – like frying some chicken. Nonetheless, the improvements were registered by Pollan’s son, though when Pollan asked his son

if these new nuggets tasted more like chicken than the old ones, he seemed baffled by the question. “No, they taste like what they are, which is nuggets,” and then dropped on his dad a withering two-syllable “duh.” In this consumer’s mind at least, the link between a nugget and chicken in it was never more than notional, and probably irrelevant…..
Isaac passed one up to the front for Judith and me to sample. It looked and smelled pretty good, with a nice crust and bright white interior reminiscent of chicken breast meat. In appearance and texture a nugget certainly alludes to fried chicken, yet all I could really taste was salt, that all-purpose fast-food flavor, and ok, maybe a note of chicken boullion informing the salt. Overall, the nugget seemed more like an abstraction than a full-fledged food, an idea of chicken waiting to be fleshed out. (boldface mine)

I’d hate to see that devolution when it comes to “friend”. Shouldn’t it still mean something? Or, should I just accept the fact that the words we use to describe or represent our connections to other people, if online, should only be seen as abstraction, an idea of friendship waiting to be fleshed out, and not to be presumed as anything more.

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