Finally got around to watching The Social Network last weekend. While I don’t begin to take every word or plot point as completely factual, it seemed to contain enough documentation of certain events to convince me that a) Zuckerberg is (or was) a rather stunning genius/a*hole and b) he really did screw the Winkelvi even if he didn’t technically steal their idea. But what really struck me as I mulled over the story of Facebook’s inception was the sinister act perpetrated on the very generation it targeted as its initial demographic (as well as all the plugged-in-from-birth generations to follow): the criminal deconstruction of the meaning of friend.
When I went to college (back when all this was sand dunes!), I moved to a different state. I left behind a tight-knit group of girlfriends and moved into a dorm where I didn’t know a soul. I cried like a baby when my mom walked out of my new room and left me, for truly the first time in my life, alone. I was terrified. My friends, back home and off to their own distant college destinations, were technically just a phone call away; but of course we didn’t have cell phones then and long-distance on the hallway pay phone was too expensive. I didn’t have a laptop (not yet invented) to flip open and zap an email or IM to one of them. I had no choice but to suck it up and walk down the hall to say hello to strangers. Fast-forward a few weeks and those strangers were now new friends.
I drifted from some of my old friends, lost touch with a few of them completely. I changed colleges and created yet another family of friends before graduating and dashing off to ride the rails in Europe for a few months, collecting exotic new acquaintances like picture postcards. Then it was back to the States and the start of my life as a working girl (not that kind) where more strangers stepped up and applied for status as new BFFs.
For my generation, and the ones that preceded mine, Facebook has been a true gift. All these friendships we’ve cultivated over the years can be rediscovered, nurtured, and appreciated in a whole new way. Long-lost friends can be restored to our orbit, gleaming like distant stars that have just been revealed when the cloud cover breaks. More recent friendships barely register a blip when cross-country moves or new babies or changing jobs shake up the status quo. And unlike the Net Generation, who have collected their “friends” electronically every step of the way, we have the choice of whom to define as a friend in this brave new world.
I feel regret for the socially networked 20somethings who will never have the wonderful moment of revelation when, years down the road, they get a Friend Request from that sweet kid from elementary school they haven’t thought of in decades who now lives in Ireland and still remembers how they used to pretend to be the Six Million Dollar Man. They will have been “friends” all along, never allowing those years of mystery to intervene and make the reconnection so much fun.
If Facebook had been part of my life when I traveled after college, half my memories would now be dulled to grey by reality. When I tumbled into a train car and fell into conversation – and fits of giggles – with Brenda and Kim from England, and devised an immediate new plan to travel to Greece with them, we struck up a friendship that existed in a wild, wonderful moment in time. I didn’t want to track every nanosecond of their lives when we parted.
When we met the Greek boys who worked the bars on the island we settled on for a few weeks and I fell into a brief, wordless romance with Mikal, who spoke little English but had a pre-Justin Bieber cascade of soft hair and fed me Greek yogurt and fresh warm bread on a 3am visit to his friend’s bakery, it was a perfect swoony experience to wrap in silk and tuck away to smile back on when I’m 80 (or, um, right now). I didn’t want to follow his status updates as he went into mandatory army service or posted photos of his eventual children that recaptured his now-faded gorgeous youth.
I’m grateful that I have vivid Technicolor memories like these to look back upon. Those people, and so many others I’ve encountered along the way, were my friends for a bright, brief instant. They could become my Friends now, if they remember my name and searched me out online. But the distinction would always be clear to me. Is that true for those Harvard kids who first signed onto “The Facebook” and the teens and tweens who followed right on their heels as the social network became everyone’s digital backyard? I’m not sure it will, because Facebook has dangerously meddled with that precious term and the very experience of creating friendships.
Mark Zuckerberg has always insisted on keeping Facebook free to its users but, like his ruined friendship depicted in the movie, its success may have cost us more than we could have imagined.
This is an original JerseyMomsBlog post. Deanna Q, a New Jersey mom, is only accepting new Facebook friend requests from people who know her middle name.