The Transience of Friendships

Benji Lampel
May 26, 2016 · 10 min read

I grew up in the prototypical suburban sprawl of Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. It’s densely filled with humans. I mean really a lot of humans, like, millions of humans. And somehow, not one of them on my street was my age growing up. Some of my friends in other parts of the Valley (sorry Central and Silicon Valley, SFV is the Valley) caught luckier breaks and fraternized with their neighbors, but in the end I think we all pretty much suffered the same fate.

The transition to college differed strongly from the no-less-subtle change of schools I faced on four other occasions. Three graduations and a switch of elementary schools taught me that your friends are the people you see every (week)day, and while you can see someone you like from time to time, and your interactions with them feel like you haven’t missed a beat, you just aren’t creating memories with them at the same rate such that they can’t really be considered friends the same way. These infrequent friends are emphatically not acquaintances: you know them too well, or like them too much. Yet I hesitate to call them friends without some sort of prefix; thinking about some of these infrequent friends evokes feelings such that I know they still occupy emotional territory but that space is more a scrapbook than scrapbooking club.

From preschool to elementary (two different ones) to middle school to high school, I lost friends at every transition. I think a great many people have, maybe all the people who lived in areas like mine, where if someone didn’t live just down your block you probably didn’t see them because they lived miles away. So school was the place I knew I’d regularly see people my own age and home was where I interacted with my family and TV.

Somewhere in middle school, 6th grade I think, I got a MySpace account. I had a pruned top 8 and thought that this social networking thing would grow my bonds with my classmates (former and contemporary) without bound. Surely, we would all be BFFs, that’s why we wrote it in each other’s elementary school yearbooks.

But we were already failing on our yearbook promises: those of us that went to different middle schools spoke dramatically less, even with MySpace and all of our propensities to lie about our ages on the internet. The one social network just wasn’t enough. We could talk and express our teenage angst at each other just fine but we were not building experiences. Sharing a meme pales in comparison to the organic emergence of an inside joke.

When Facebook came along for the masses to use, I had entered high school and shed a fair number of middle school friends. Ironically, it was not a friend who got me on to Facebook, but a stranger who thought I was his friend, invited me to try Facebook, and upon adding me, asked why I was starting shit with one of his friends. I realized I didn’t know who this person was and promptly un-friended him, leaving me alone on the digital platform because Mark Zuckerberg isn’t as friendly as MySpace Tom. However the experience marked my first use of the Facebook messaging system, which I thought unarguably superior to MySpace chat because it was basically AIM, which I liked.

Between MySpace and Facebook, Facebook definitely facilitates interpersonal interaction better. And they know it. And they know it’s what’s going to keep them afloat, so Facebook is throwing money at making the best messaging app. But in the end, it won’t be the thing that makes relationships. Facebook isn’t designed to make relationships, just to facilitate, and in a very specific way. While everyone you are connected with on the platform is your “friend”, Facebook knows deep down that you care about some people more than others, or only want to hear from certain people, and their algorithms do the hard work of making sure you don’t see people who you call your friend but aren’t.

Sharing is important, but making memories less so. After all, Facebook has a share button, but not a “let’s make a memory” one. You are worth your attention, so you would be worthless to Facebook if your attention was really on other people: where it has to be to be in the moment, experiencing something genuinely with someone else. Facebook is the publish/subscribe model of friendship, a model of passive emotional commitment, the highlight reels of our lives without the opportunity to make a highlight on the platform. It’s voyeuristic friendship at the utmost.

Not that Facebook is bad or wrong, just that it doesn’t keep the party going like movie Mark Zuckerberg wanted in The Social Network. It’s free because you are the product, not because the guys running the party are too cool.

What Facebook gives us, then, is an excuse. An excuse to not do the real maintenance of a friendship. A friendship is a process as much as a connection, a Facebook friendship is quite literally a set of nodes and edges. The maintenance of the friendship is the being and the doing: posting that experience on Facebook is scrapbooking. While we’re all scrapbooking together on Facebook, it’s more like a digital scrapbooking convention, where we all congratulate each other on pretty scrapbooks but generally don’t get past the small talk around the events. The scrapbooking convention is like a meta-friendship based not on mutually shared experience but merely the existence of experience.

So when I Facebook stalk a friend from middle school today, I try to think about who that person is now, and if I can really glean that information from the limited posts and comments they make. I can’t. Not to a very large degree, anyway. I can see that they like some Democrat running for office or that they got a job doing something I never knew they dreamed of doing and I kind of feel caught up on their life in the way you feel caught up on a TV show when you jump in after three seasons and get a two minute recap at the beginning of the first episode. I don’t send them a message because I don’t know what to say, and I’m afraid all I would be able to say is “Hi, how are you, who are you?”

Snapchat I think is a little better in this regard of keeping up with your friends, but I think it really only works when you use it with your friends (which I believe is the intention of the app). Also a pub/sub social network, it differs from Facebook in that you are getting the Now and not the Then. A snap is a fresh piece of someone’s life, with all the beauty and mundaneness that comes along with real life. It’s not a moment on the highlight reel but a moment of humanity that says “you can’t be here all the time with me but you still don’t have to miss out on the little moments”. Facebook is all about the Big Moments: notice all the graduation pictures this time of year; the various Big Trip albums; Facebook literally having Life Events (capital letters not for emphasis) you can add to your wall. Snapchat’s still just sharing but it is on the cusp of participatory, a fancy UX consolation prize to truly shared experience. The face augmented reality is super neat, though, and I think the ability to alter reality in the pictures so well creates a really unique, dynamic kind of communication that can’t be replicated in real life, obviously.

Playing games with people online is a whole other ball game, and I think one of the only places online that offers an arena for a real friendship to emerge and/or be maintained. The process of gaming has the elements of cooperation and competition that stimulate human interaction and facilitate the organic experiences that make a friendship real. However, even social gaming has limitations, and while I do not believe someone must see their friend for them to be a friend, having no in person experiences tailors the friendship to be a certain way. During the course of gaming, people may find that they have a lot in common in other ways, but without diverging the friendship from the sphere of social gaming, the friendship is not generalizable to other experiences and thus a narrow kind of friendship based on only a very certain kind of experience. They are genuine friendships but in a very niche kind of way, like members of a scrapbooking club who only ever see each other when actively scrapbooking together.

The subjective human experience is a strange, marvelous thing, and I won’t try to explain it except for its persistence, and only because it relates to how we make and keep friends. Sometime after you were born, you woke up in a different way, and haven’t quite shut off that way since. While sleep is an obvious hiccup in the continuity of experience, we still dream, a conscious and memory-making experience despite the experience being flanked by unconsciousness. The point being that while you are awake enough to be of any use to yourself and others, you exist in a state of experiential continuity, a linear progression through your day with time slices of change so small that you only recognize the integration of those pieces as your life. While you only notice the summing of the parts, your neurons are doing the dirty work of processing the pieces of your day, and in the course of that processing, changing connections and firing or not firing and whatever else it is that neurons do. Day by day, your brain changes at a resolution too fine-grained for an MRI. Eventually, these minuscule changes allow you to look back on a younger version of yourself and despair at your past horrendous fashion sense.

So when I go back and Facebook stalk a friend from elementary or middle school, it’s not the same person — not physically or otherwise — who looks at that profile picture. And the person I’m looking at isn’t the same, either. We cannot possibly be the same, which isn’t to say that we couldn’t still be friends, just that the friendship would have to be revamped or at the very least different in some way. Playing catch up with a friend after a couple years is difficult and just not the same process as actively being friends. It’s showing each other a scrapbook instead of creating the scraps that go into the book. It’s seeing a snapshot of someone’s brain out of the context of years of their lives.

In high school, around the time I got a Facebook, I started frequenting 4chan, the notorious image board. A somewhat active member of several boards, I tended to keep my power level to myself in real life and simply enjoyed the online community in the kind of perverse and sick way it’s intended to be enjoyed. It was a safe way to laugh at someone else’s expense, and the “at their expense” had already happened through no fault of my own so I felt relived of the obligation to be guilty. Anyway, the site was a community in a very real way, with community discussions on the site and community activities sometimes bleeding off onto other sites. What kept me fascinated with 4chan, and what has helped it survive as an online community, is really just being a community. The people on there are experiencing together, changing their brains together, creating the scraps that go into the greatest scrapbook of them all: internet archives. Yet, in this community of active and strange users, the layer of anonymity prevents friendship from emerging in a place that could deeply use it. Users of the site are forced onto other platforms to develop a friendship, such as going to Skype, where identities are more exposed. Friendship needs some sort of persistence of identity on both sides, a way to pick your friend out of the group, and that just cannot exist on a platform of silhouettes.

Towards the end of high school I defected to Reddit, a semi-anonymous platform and online community. I found my way to a few subreddits whose interests aligned with mine, but I never found a friend in the community. To me, it seemed that the semi-anonymity of Reddit enabled power users (Reddit celebrities) to dominate conversations (at the expense of the little guys), but it didn’t catalyze friendships. Reddit doesn’t offer experience, though, the same way Facebook doesn’t and 4chan doesn’t. The experience that happens on those sites is an individual one, ultimately; only your brain changes as a reaction to the stimulation from the site, and without anyone else around, there is no shared experience wherein the same stimulation enters two people only at slightly different angles. Reddit offers discussions, not events, and the events that do happen on Reddit are more often than not confined to a subreddit or two, cause some drama, blow over, and everyone moves on because it more than likely didn’t directly affect them anyway.

Freshman year of college I bought fewer videogames than any time in my life since I had an allowance big enough to buy videogames. My time increasingly migrated towards being with people, getting involved in school, and learning. My living situation changed dramatically: from a house of four to a house of nearly forty, with the mean age dropping significantly towards 18. Pendola house in Manzanita Village was its own community, but a dynamic community where the members made experiences with each other and the experience-making process a driving force in keeping the community together.

Then Sophomore year came and we all pretty much moved out of Pendola, and many of us moved in together in a housing complex at the end of Estero which served as a kind of frat house for CCS students (and some non-CCS, we don’t discriminate). The community changed, but the experience-driven aspect did not. Us continuing residents through our third year (and fourth for some) kept the process of friendship going while more and more friends went their own ways, found new groups, new jobs, new homes and new people to develop into friends.

Now in my fourth year, in a new home, it pains me to think that I might have already lost more friends than I’ve made in college. I’m not sure if its my fault as much as the natural way of things now, as much as the natural shedding of friends every few years that my whole life has taught me is normal. Seeing on Facebook the acceptances to graduate schools across the country, I’m immensely proud of what my friends have achieved, profoundly grateful that these people took any time at all to call me their friends and share a part of their lives with me, and sad in a distant, quiet, looming way on the realization that I most probably will not see many of these people many more times in my life. I am past the point of no return where most of my contemporary friends from college will inevitably turn into the pages of a scrapbook, our friendship and experiences reduced to nodes and edges on Facebook’s graph, living simultaneously in many physical spaces in many physical data centers but only ever in those points of time from whence they came.

Benji Lampel

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Big ideas, little following