Just the other day, I found myself dispensing with over two hundred “friends.”
The sheer brutality of the above statement points to the intuition that provoked the culling spree. To examine the agglomeration of one’s connections and to find a single uniform mass discredits the very notion of affection and debases the very nature of friendship.
Fondness is despotic; fraternity detests equality. Intimacy demands favorites and preferences, hierarchies and priorities. Our friends are friends because their value exceeds the rest, because we would discount the needs of the many to honor the needs of a few.* George Orwell’s line that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” is as much a description of friendship as it is an indictment of Stalin.
Facebook erodes these boundaries and cancels these distinctions. No line divides the people we’ve loved for decades from the people we’ve known for days. Chance encounters masquerade as life-long intimacies; a conversation of five minutes merits the same designation as a marriage of five years.
The norms that govern our relationships have customarily been implicit. We can distinguish, without deliberation, who falls under “friend,” who falls under “stranger,” and who falls under all the subtle gradations that lie between both. But when we are confronted with the options to “confirm” or to “delete,” we are forced to articulate an inarticulate code and create guidelines for behavior in an unregulated domain. Here our instincts falter: we waver and we hesitate, we dither and we delay. We agonize between the authenticity demanded by love and the obsequiousness required by civility. Do we accept “friend requests” to confirm intimacy, or to evade embarrassment, or, even more insidiously, to establish popularity?
And who, even, is the final arbiter of affection? Who can trace the borders in this amorphous terrain? What do we call a casual encounter that was nonetheless meaningful? What do we name a long-standing business relationship that nevertheless remained within its bounds? There are people in our lives who are emphatically not strangers, yet neither can we call them friends. These are the people whom we traditionally designate as acquaintances, and it is largely from these that our friendships eventually form.
And perhaps it is this category that Facebook should render as the default—if I’m ever to be spared the ignominy of continuously discarding friends.
* This line paraphrases what Kirk tells Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and beats, hands down, anything that could have passed between Sam and Frodo, Gimli and Legolas or even Jack and Ennis.