Defining Friendship in the Digital Age
What does a Facebook “friend” really mean?
Dictionary.com has many definitions for the word, including:
“a person associated with another as a contact on a social media website.”
This a modern mutation of what we once knew and valued as friendship.
Facebook’s algorithms, assisted by our own behavior, determine what we see in our News Feed. If I regularly punch the Like button on photos posted by my friend Ben, Facebook will learn that I enjoy Ben’s photos and show me more and more over time. If I rarely engage with distant family members who share racist cat memes, I’ll see fewer racist cat memes.
We give Facebook a taste of what we like and the robots do the rest.
It’s our own fault that Facebook put algorithms in charge of our relationships. Over the years we’ve over-friended way too many people and cluttered up our feeds.
Remember Derek from high school, who never spoke to you but now wants to be your friend? Add him!
Remember Sally from three jobs ago? Who you have nothing in common with? Lock that friend request up!
There’s an easy way to fix this and I call it the Friend Purge. It’s very cathartic and I recommend it to everyone. Pull up your Facebook friend list and you’ll notice that it’s pre-sorted for you. At the top are people you Like and Comment with the most (AKA besties — keep them). Scroll down to the bottom and you’ll find people you rarely interact with. This is where you can make some cuts.
Recently I was performing a long overdue purge and at the bottom I saw a familiar face.
It was Kim! I’d totally forgotten about Kim!
At some point she changed her name to Peace Lamb. This kicked my curiosity into high gear and I clicked on her profile.
First, let me tell you a bit more about Kim. I met her at a conference in Omaha in October 2010. Kim was one of the volunteer organizers and we spoke briefly after I finished my speaking engagement.
As I was heading out the door she offered to drive me back to my hotel. That may sound strange, but it really wasn’t —it was just her generous spirit at work. I said yes. Kim’s car was a bad-ass ochre Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. The kind of car that can survive a nuclear explosion. Pure steel!
During the short ride I sensed Kim was a damaged soul. Not by anything she said or did, but there was a deep sadness in her eyes and voice. Sometimes you can detect darkness in other humans.
Kim puffed an e-cigarette while she drove. I’d never seen a person smoking an e-cigarette before. Kim will always be a pioneer because of this.
That night, a group of conference organizers and speakers went out for drinks in Omaha’s Old Market. Kim kicked off the evening with shots of Jäger. She was wearing a long, flowing coat that could have passed for a cape. I wondered if she was actually a superhero who forgot to remove her costume before doing Jäger bombs.
A few days later I sent Kim an obligatory Facebook friend request and we became people associated with one another as contacts on a social media website.
I never really knew her.
When a tenuous acquaintance doesn’t post to Facebook often and you don’t make an effort to stay in touch, it’s almost like they don’t exist — at least in the digital world.
A year later we reconnected and met up for coffee while I was passing through Omaha on a work trip. I entered the coffee shop and found Kim wedged into an overstuffed chair, wearing a headset and typing furiously on a laptop. She was in the middle of a frantic Skype call with her boyfriend who lived in Israel. Clearly something dramatic was going on.
From the conversation I gathered Kim was temporarily living in the Oldsmobile. Her mother kicked her out of the house and changed all the locks. And so Kim was using the free Wi-Fi to Skype with her boyfriend, who was trying to remotely book her a hotel room all the way from Israel.
These are the painful details we rarely see on Facebook.
We humans are so good at polishing our online image to be perfect, successful and interesting.
LOOK AT ME with all my friends at happy hour!
LOOK AT ME eating a phenomenal meal!
LOOK AT ME posing in all my super cool travel photos!
If our image is flawed, we crop out the sadness and put a filter on it.
I haven’t seen Kim since that day. Years passed. We didn’t stay in touch. The Facebook News Feed algorithms took over and showed me only what they thought I was interested in. Kim faded away in sea of hilarious Corgi GIFs and Buzzfeed articles about 11 Ways To Make Love To An Avocado.
Back to my friend purge. I saw Kim’s familiar face and wondered if things were going okay for her. So I clicked over to her profile.
Kim has been dead since April 2013.
Her Facebook profile is now a living memorial. There are posts from her friends asking if anyone knows what happened to her. Others are asking where her grave is located. There are no answers or closure.
April 2013! I went three entire years with no clue she’d passed away!
If it takes three years to learn that a friend has died, was that ever a friendship to begin with? Friends tend to check in on each other. Maybe we’re using the word “friend” a bit liberally on social networks these days.
Semantics aside, if you sense pain in someone — whether that’s an acquaintance or good friend — ask them how they’re doing. Don’t let Facebook algorithms create a gulf between you.
Rest in peace, Peace Lamb. Our friendship was brief and unconventional, but I’ll never forget it.
NOTE: This story was originally told as a Pecha Kucha presentation (20 slides, 20 seconds each) in September 2016.