The Insider’s Guide to Life: Friends with Benefits

ColumnDefining friendship online.

“We need a new word for friend.”

This, from a web-savvy colleague who is one of the seventeen remaining people on the planet not to be grasped by the far-reaching fingers of the Facebook people garden, after I mentioned a study finding people have twice as many friends online as they do in real life.

Ask your friends about this. Everyone’s got an opinion. A friend (former neighbor, best) recently told me, “Thanks to Facebook I am now overwhelmed by people I would never consider my friends. I don’t really care what you’ve been up to since high school. ‘I knew you when’ does not mean I want to know you again!” One friend (related, possibly parental) has not checked her wall in five months and 29 days but complains that I forgot her birthday. Another friend (new, friend of friend), explained over IRL margaritas that he likes Facebook because it helps his family keep up on his globe-trotting. And another friend (acquaintance, professional), finds the whole thing to be a preening popularity contest, the equivalent of the high school cafeteria we’d all like to forget…back in action and armed with a cache. Still another friend (actual, close), refers to Facebook as Faceplant.

Facebook brings people together in ways that would never happen offline except at extremely ambitious weddings. Take today’s wall post I made about the Nakation pitch I was reading. (That’s nudist vacationing: the latest way spare yourself the hassles of checking luggage, Sincerely, The American Association of Nude Recreation, and Did We Mention Over 250 Member Locations.)

And what of Nakation? A sustainable designer, my best friend from college, a friend of a former boyfriend, a college friend I used to take road trips with and a social media power user friend I’ve never met all “like” my status. I’m a little disappointed that my mother or maybe a high school teacher isn’t in the mix but it’s still only lunchtime.

If Facebook can bring together, as it has on my own wall, a creationist stay-at-home mom, a (still? really?) Republican, a self-professed raging commie and an EcoSalon staff member without World War Wall breaking out, maybe we should give this thing a little credit. Facebook: lousy on privacy, great with that world peace thing, and never mind what the Assange guy says. In a culture where communication breakdown is the glaring rule, could Facebook be the exception?

You know what they say about friends: the more, the merrier! In the era of Facebook, it’s one big happy friendship.

Of course, detente does not come without its diplomatic roils. The obnoxious acquaintance you are obligated to be online friends with because you both work in social media, oops did I write that. The ex you stay friends with so you can stalk them. The ex you stay friends with because you barely can be bothered to remember them. That random guy with no online footprint you have no idea how you know but he is your friend and moreover, he really likes your Pandora shares which is cool. He also likes your shares about the weekend with the girls which is less cool. The friend who likes absolutely everything and is apparently preparing for a career in spam. The friend who is always getting hacked. (Note to self: suggest that they become friends). The still-capitalizes-Internet friend who has forgotten you have an email address and then gets mad when you don’t show up to events you didn’t know about. The Digg friend you just tweet, anyway.

Person I (Might) Know doesn’t have much of a ring, and Comrade? Too soon, at least for the red states. Differing degrees of “friendship,” and no elegant way to identify an acquaintance, colleague, family, love interest, partner, friend or Friend Forever.

These aren’t friends, these are friends with benefits. They make us look popular, interesting, established. They make us feel less lonely and more distributed. They make themselves a networking smorgasbord for later sampling. They make us pass the time. They make the past the times.

And, online friends help those who are isolated, such as the chronically ill or just the really busy, to remain connected. Contrary to popular wisdom, I believe having a wide range of online friends has an eventual authenticating effect, paring the personal PR campaigns from our lives for all but the most insecure. And online friends drive optimism, as many users believe the next great relationship or job could be a friendship confirmation away, which is a pretty good belief to have because it’s increasingly true.

Who’s not to Like?

This is the latest installment in your editor’s column, The Insider’s Guide to Life, exploring topics such as media, culture, sex, politics, and anything else. Cheers and spellcheck!

Image: Johan Larsson