Put a frog in a pot of boiling water and they’ll spring out. Put a frog tepid water and slowly raise the temperature: they’ll stay until they’re cooked. This plays out with big events like the erosion of our civil rights. It also plays out in small venues.
I have two accounting days a year: New Years and my Birthday. I pause and ask “how have things gone since the last time around the sun?” Am I healthier, richer, happier? Do I have more of this? Do I have less of that? These events are supposed to be celebrations. Celebrations are usually performed with friends and loved ones. With my birthday approaching, the birthday list needed to be assembled. I have come to ask: do I have friends?
According to Facebook, I have 250 friends. Do you remember The Matrix? When the operators looked at their operatives in the Matrix, they looked at the unencoded version of the Matrix. Little green icons cascaded down the screen. To untrained eyes, they looked like gibberish. To the operators they looked like blondes, brunettes, red heads. I have been programming for a very long time. I have been doing database development for 15+ years. When I see the Facebook friends list, I don’t see Joey, Ross and Rachel. I see id numbers in a many-to-many database relationship. When you see forum posts, I see data entry and record storage. My tribe is made up of a disproportionate number of rational people who pride themselves on having decoded that there is no God and no need for a self-delusion that would give our universe a consciousness, a big white beard and a way to tally the fall of every sparrow. Somehow, they are rational, but they also mistake data entries for kinship.
A couple years ago, a friend had a dilemma. He lives paycheque to paycheque. He had a cat get really sick when he was really broke. He had more than 350 Facebook friends. When he made his plight known, there were scores of sympathetic respondents. There was all of this data being posted. I chimed and said that this was a simple problem to solve: He needed $300. If 60 out of his 350 friends chipped in $5 per to help a friend and save an animal, this problem could be addressed. I think quantifying friendship or mercy is crass, but you can’t miss that his friendship plus compassion for a cat was worth less than $5. They fell silent and hid in the digital woodwork. This scenario played out again for him: he had to go to the hospital and-- like all people hospitalized on short notice-- friendly faces would have put him at ease and allowed him to pass the time that much better. Who showed up? Two friends and his girlfriend. His other cohorts (digital and non) couldn’t be bothered.
When it comes to social connections, I feel like that frog in the pot. When I was a kid, I had a good number of kids to play with. When I was a kid, it was cool to wake up on a Saturday to the sound of my Mom and her friends sitting around having coffee because they were comfortable with dropping by. They didn’t stay all day. They didn’t set-up a time in advance. They just popped by, gabbed and left. The pop-in was welcome because it was spontaneous. When I was teenager, I was welded into the company of several friends. When I grew up, my friends were frequently at my house, or I was at theirs. It wasn’t hard to muster a big gang for a movie night or similar. That frequency dropped off a shelf. Our welcome mat shrunk to the point where you now need a microscope to see it.
There were excuses like “people are getting busier” and “people have kids.” I have my personal theories. By working on the Internet, I was prey to sudden cancellations-- one minute I’m prepping to go out of the house and see friends, next minute, I’m hunkered down and fixing a server. Even when I contained the fires to happen only during work hours, they would leave me so exhausted that I just wanted to sleep or bitch.
So I have this big disconnect. Crass quantification says that if I have 250 friends, then I have many friends-- maybe 5-times the numbers I had than when I was in my heyday of drop-ins and hangouts. How is it that I technically have so many friends and so few people contact me? Not the business me. Not the +1 in a couple. Me. The royal me? In part, the nature of the connections that happened have changed. The two people I see with some frequency will not go near Facebook. Two friends I have who used to invite us for a casual breakfast at their place seemed to be big on the drop-in. One of the couple is seldom on Facebook and the other one hates it. After we hung out for a while at their place, friends of theirs would do the drop in thing, stay for a coffee and maybe some bacon then get on with their day. I was raised to think that normal. You meet friends. Were you in a village or a tribe, your friends would be one hut over-- when you walk outside, you can’t help but see a friend and be.. friendly.
What I find I’ve devolved into is a role as a fixer. Back in the day, friends would hang out just to be in each other’s company. That started to change. One friend went from shooting the shit to pinging me with computer questions. More than one friend is too busy to see me, but when crises emerge there is suddenly time. That available capacity for suffering has been a big problem for me in the last couple years. When a relative died, I got all the time in the world to go grieve. Had I wanted to take the same amount of time off to celebrate being alive or the good company of family and friends, that would be a total non-starter. If there’s a problem, I’m suddenly visible. If there’s a sunny day, I am transparent. If this post is a winge for help, maybe people will listen. I would rather they listen a month ago when there was no tinge of guilt in the mix. Sympathy-anything is something I don’t want.
I understand that relationships have lifespans. I understand that a many-to-many entity relationship in Facebook is commonly mistaken for friendship. But what I am trying to fathom is if this is a “fixable” problem. Part of me thinks I could go back to my last accounting day (New Years) and let old acquaintances be forgot. Facebook keeps old relationships in place like museum pieces. I have my two oldest friends in my friends list. I have ex-girlfriends and crypto-ex-girlfriends in my friends list.
Crypto-ex-girlfriends? When I was dating, I would have the courage to ask a girl out to dinner or to a movie. I took this to be semaphor for “let’s make this a first date” (not that I would ever say that). Sometimes there were many of these dates. In retrospect, I came to the conclusion that I was on a date, but they were out for dinner. At some point, these came to a head (usually when they started to date someone else) and I stopped dating them and they never started. If I never got to “seal the deal” (aka intimate contact), they went into the crypto-ex-girlfiend column and not the much smaller ex-girlfiend column. I later came to describe this phenomenon as “rights elevation”-- I am a geek. Rights elevation is when you login as joe-blow and through some trickery you can elevate your user rights to that of the sysadmin. It’s like saying, “you’re my best friend” to someone who considers you to be a casual acquaintance. It’s like saying “we’re really close” but you’ve never crossed the threshold of their door. For one friend, it's someone for whom you know what the inside of their bathroom looks like. Right elevation or relationship inequality is like putting that guy on Facebook down as the ward of your children, should you meet an untimely demise. One side is left hanging. In the binary nature of Facebook friendships, you're their friend until you are not. You can play with the levels and shading, but it's effectively either or. Facebook doesn't account for drift or lack of affinity.
Given the infrequency that I see my friends in social settings; and given the infrequency that my friends seem to consider me as a social candidate, I ask how is Facebook relevant? Is it all distortion and shadow? I cannot ask these difficult questions of my Facebook friends. When they have a crisis (computer, personal, moving day), I am on their radar. When I want to shoot the shit, there is no shit and there are often no shooters. When I have a question about something deep or something sad, I’m a downer. Have you looked at your Facebook feeds? It’s anger over Harper. You’re suffocating from the imminent heat death of our world. You release rancor on so many topics, but when I have a personal and interpersonal topic, it’s too much. It’s like you’ll march on Washington, but sweeping up a broken tea cup is too much effort. Maybe that’s the thing. To quote Spock, “You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million.” We are overwhelmed by one problem, but a problem a million people wide is one to take on. This is all about the human experience-- everything about us is about the human experience. The planet has spun on for billions of years-- it wasn’t waiting for human beings to assume the throne. We’re worried about our version of the planet getting wrecked. So our wrath over this injustice or that environmental havoc is about the human experience. Maybe the appeal of Facebook is that the gain is lowered. Emails can hang in inboxes. People don’t mind the mess of your place if they only are data references in Facebook instead of people on sticky couches. But I’m with you. I’m in your boat: I’m part of the human experience. But I don’t need the gain turned down. I like humans, I just like to say that Hell is other people. I dislike that Facebook has stripped away the human from the experience and plunked the latter into a metaphorical bell jar linked to other bell jars. Really: if you’re okay with the gain turned down, you’re okay connecting with the data references representing other contact in the system and you do not need to turn the gain up. If you need to turn the gain up, then you know how I feel and you know my profound loss at a phone that doesn’t ring and a couch that is all too empty.
My question would be as cryptic and peculiar as: Facebook?