People of the (Face) Book – Part 2

July 16, 2008

Continuing on the Facebook thread, after only a week of experience I continue marvel at the joys of interacting virtually with current friends and renewing connections with friends from my near and distant past as well. But notwithstanding the constant curiosity that envelops my Facebook experience, I can’t help but critically analyze the experience as well. After all, if I am about ready to endorse social networking as an important source of inspiration when developing new approaches to engage Jewish people, perhaps I should recognize some of its limitations first. In summary, here are a few of the things about the current state of electronic social networking (as exemplified by Facebook) that I think are due further consideration:

Friends vs. Acquaintances – It does make a difference. When I was a teenager my grandmother Hilda would come and spend the summers with my family. I can still recall one afternoon where I was trying to explain to my grandmother how I had to go out of the house to see “all of my friends” for the afternoon. In response, my grandmother was explaining to me that I would be prudent to always remember that I had many acquaintances but only a few are truly friends – and that knowing the difference between the two was important.

Fast forward to today on Facebook. Every connection and relationship is a ‘friend’ and there is no way to categorize someone as just an acquaintance. That guy that sat next to me in chemistry in 11th grade – is he really a friend? Especially as compared to the person with whom my wife and I see socially a few times a month? On Facebook they are both ‘friends’ even though clearly the former is merely an acquaintance. And examples go on and on. Absent some other deeper connection, a friend of a friend us truly only my acquaintance, right? I don’t believe the distributive property of friendship applies in that case. How about the person who I know only in passing, who I have never seen socially and who has very little in common with me except that our children go to school together. Is he a friend? No, he is merely an acquaintance, but one to whom I don’t want to be rude by ignoring his ‘friend’ request. So absent a third alternative, we have become friends – ‘Facebook Friends.’In sum, I want to heed my grandmother’s advice, but at least virtually, Facebook won’t let me. When we refer to every acquaintance as a friend, don’t we trivialize what that means… at least in our virtual space? And when we spend time reading up on the status of all of our acquaintances, do we still have the energy to understand what is going on with those few individuals who are truly our friends? There is a difference between friends and acquaintances – notwithstanding the fact that Facebook blurs the lines. And as my grandmother said, knowing the difference is an important skill to master – even on Facebook.

Communication vs. Interaction – Sometimes what you see is what you get. Another thing about Facebook that has me pondering its utility is what the Facebook experience says about the bonds that to tie us together as ‘Facebook friends’ (assuming we get past the friend/acquaintance issue). What is it that, in this virtual space, we share – actually communicate – to deepen our bonds of friendship. Yes, there is a ‘chat’ feature that allows friends to talk to one another. But much of the communication is based on the updated profiles of friends and the ability for other friends to review and respond to those profile updates. Friends can send messages to one another, but they can just as easily ‘poke’ one another, throw virtual pies at each other, buy virtual beers for one another and make other non-verbal overtures to their friends. And when profiles do change, there oftentimes is no explanation. For example, and old friend (or perhaps acquaintance) has changed their ‘status’ from dating to single with no comment and no explanation. A person has just joined the ”friends of (fill-in your choice of celebrity/political; candidate/sports star/mythic figure)” group without any discussion of why the friend might identify with the group, or why they joined the group at that point in time. Friends have interacted with information about the individual, but has communication truly occurred. In sum, there is a tremendous ability of individuals on Facebook to interact with information about one another, but because of that ease of interaction there is an inherent limitation on the depth and substantiality of the ‘communication’ that occurs.

Ideas vs. Experiences – Which are the ties that bind? The last thing about Facebook I have struggled with is the question of what, at its essence, binds friends together on Facebook. It is not necessarily ideas, values, religion or political orientation. It is sheer experience – and the results of that common experience. And at its core – it is the experience of having met one another at some point in our lives. In this regard, Linked-in (an alternative to Facebook used more frequently in business circles) has the more appropriate name for this observation. We are all linked in to a common experience, perhaps it was social or professional, and now it is the experience of Facebook itself. We may have very different views of the world, but at least we have bumped into each other in this world, and that has made the genesis of our ‘Facebook Friend’ connection possible, with or without the deeper connection that my grandmother would suggest as a distinction between a friend and an acquaintance.
Friends vs. Acquaintances. Communication vs. Interaction. Ideas vs. Experiences. These are some of the same dynamics that we struggle with in helping build Jewish community. Who in our community feels like they are truly engaged in our community as opposed to those who feel merely a passing acquaintance with that which our community has to offer? At what level are we merely interacting with community members rather than more deeply communicating with them about ideas, dreams, values and needs? And last but not least, are we a community that is built merely upon shared experiences, or do we interweave within those experiences discussions of the ideas that will sustain us as a community well past the time of our shared experiences?

Certainly the Jewish people have been sustained for millennia by learning the lessons as a people of the book. But as we look to the future, perhaps we would also be wise to learn the lessons to be heeded as people of the (Face)book as well. And if we do, perhaps we will all one day truly be friends, not merely acquaintances.


One comment

  1. Seth, I have a feeling your grandmother may have been teaching you a good lesson with her comment. It’s a lesson that some people only learn as adults.

    But, even if it’s on facebook, I think Grandma Hilda would agree (especially if she’s anything like Danielle Hillary) that we should all welcome friends into our lives every day. That’s what the “book” is all about. But, the key is to know which ones are “friends” and which ones are “true friends.” Either way, it’s ok for you to treat them all as friends as long as you know who keep tabs straight in your head.

    For me, everyone is my friend. But, only a select few are true. And that, my true friend, is why my “book” numbers are ever growing. Even though I know who my true friends are, I’d love to know my friends a little better.

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