What is a friend? Has the definition of friend changed since the dawn of the social network? Are we now friends with people whom we might have ignored years ago? There was a point when I thought of my Facebook friends list as a collection, and I tried to gather as many friends as I could. I even thought of it as a competition, trying to ‘friend’ more people than my best friend. You don’t have to tell me why that was a stupid idea, I already wrote a column saying as much. CNN recently published an article from a former Facebook employee. He has created a new social network that only allows you to have 50 friends. I pared back from about 350 people to just under 200, and I could still probably cut a few more and hardly notice, but mostly because they are inactive on Facebook, not because I don’t want to hear from them. But now I think it’s time to stop cutting. It’s time to take a step back and think about what truly makes a person a friend.
What I hate most of all about this argument is the sentimentality and self-righteousness that creeps in when people make huge, sweeping statements about what a friend is, and what a friend is not. I’ll read something like: “A friend is someone who is always there for you when you need them.” Really? I mean, really!? I’m satisfied with my Facebook friend list, but I can tell you frankly that there are a few people for whom I will not always be there.
Case in point: I got a personal Facebook message from an old friend, Sherri, a girl I knew in High School. Actually, she was an ex-girlfriend’s close friend. I’m no longer friends with that ex-girlfriend on Facebook, she got cut in the great purge of 2010. But I’m still friends with this young woman. She’s a nice person, and she has children who are just a bit older than my son. I like hearing her advice and stories about her kids. It’s helpful to get clues about how to handle the problems I’ll doubtless encounter as my son grows up.
Her message said “Help, I’m stuck at a bus terminal in Alabama.” Um, what? She’s stuck at a bus terminal and she’s getting in touch with me? I didn’t have to keep reading to have an idea of what was going on here, but the rest of her message said: “I need you to send me money Western Union. Please let me know the tracking number for the wire transfer once it’s been done.” Obviously, this is a scam. Her account had been hacked.
Of course I didn’t fall for it, but it got me thinking about the nature of these online friendships. I will not be there for Sherri. If she really were stuck at a bus terminal and she got in touch with me, my first question would be to ask who she really wanted to get in contact with to help her out. But now, let’s imagine that, because of some strange technical disaster, I am the only person with whom she can get in touch. Everybody else is on vacation. I’m like the Secretary of Education in her line of succession.
Off-topic, but in researching I learned that the Secretary of Homeland Security actually comes last among cabinet members, below the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. That kind of makes me happy.
Okay, so everyone else is out of commission, and I’m really the only person who can help Sherri. Do I help her? Yes. I would help her. I would wire her the money, if I could really verify that it was her and there was nobody else who could help.
How much money? How far would I go for this Facebook friend? How much is a bus ticket? Well, let’s start there. I would not buy a plane ticket if a train were available. I might not force her to take a bus, that’s a pretty awful way to travel, but I like train rides myself, so I don’t think it would be rude to ask her to slum it and take Amtrak over American Airlines.
Would I give her $100? $200? $500? I’m not sure. I could draw a line in the sand in my head, but then I imagine reasons I would cross it. What if she’s stuck across the country? What if she has her two sons with her? What if she cries when I talk to her? I might fold. I think the answer to that question would depend more on how much disposable income I have at the time, and how sympathetic I feel for her specific situation.
What if I knew she could never pay it back? I’ve never really lent friends money. Thankfully, I’ve never had to borrow money from friends, either. In imagining such a scenario hypothetically, I’ve always thought that if I had to lend money to a friend or family member, it would be nice if they could pay it back, but I would never give them money if I really needed it returned. I would assume that money is not coming back.
Okay, so Sherri is coming home. But I have something of an emotional connection to her, by proxy. She and I never hung out alone, but she was friends with somebody I loved. I was also friends with her brother, and I still am friends with him on Facebook. So how far down my list do I have to go before I hit somebody who I would leave stranded, rather than help?
I’m Facebook friends with a guy I knew only as a roommate of another friend in our dorm freshman year of college. I think he’s going to have to walk home from Alabama. I’m friends with a guy who joined my college a cappella group a year after I graduated. I got to know him at reunion events and social gatherings, but he’s not going to get a train ticket from me. It doesn’t help his case that he continually invites me to his comedy shows in New York and Los Angeles, when I live in Texas.
The guys I haven’t seen since fifth grade, before we all went to different middle schools? Those guys I might actually help. I liked them. I felt a personal connection, and I was sad when we lost touch. My old biology teacher? Yup, I’d probably help him out, too. He only gave me a “B,” if I remember correctly, but I probably didn’t work very hard for the “B.” He’s got a good heart, and he treated people well.
Family is where this investigation gets weird. I’m friends with some family members with whom I don’t really get along well. I would still help them out, because we’re family, and I was raised with the idea that such a bond is innately meaningful. But I would rather buy some of them a train ticket home from Alabama than be their Facebook friend. I also have family I have never met, or not since I was very young. Those people are part of a family tree, of a sort, on Facebook. I would probably help them, but more out of respect for the familial bond than any personal liking.
So, there is my starting point. Would I help you escape the deep south? If everyone else you knew was cut off from you, and I was the only person on the other end when you reached out, would I actually be there for you? I’m going to take a closer look at my Facebook friend list and consider this question for each person. Most of them will remain on the list. I’m still not sure if this qualifies them as friends, but at least it’s a place to start.