The Social Tide Receding

There were a few instances that made me realize my social networking habits had gone too far, for too long. One of them went something like this. I would say to my wife something like: "Hey, my friend Gina is pregnant."

"Who's Gina?" My wife would ask.

[Image credit: Surat Lozowick]

"She's my friend from middle school. You remember, she was having trouble conceiving, so they went to a fertility doctor and now she's finally pregnant. She's due in February."

"I still don't remember Gina." My wife would say. "Have I ever met her?"

"I don't think so. She wasn't at our ten year high school reunion, and we didn't fly back to Maryland for my twenty year middle school reunion. So you might not have met her."

"You had a twenty year middle school reunion?" She would ask.

"Yeah, so did you. But since you're not on Facebook, your friends told me about it to tell you. Remember? You said we should skip it, so we did. That was last summer."

"So, you haven't seen this woman since high school. She didn't come to the reunion, and there's probably no chance you're going to see her again in person. So why do you know so much about her reproductive life?"

I had no good answer for that. Why did I know so much? More importantly, how much time am I investing in people who may be kind and interesting, but with whom I've had no relationship for more than a decade and a half, and probably never would again, except for our connection on Facebook.

When I first joined Facebook, it was exciting. At first it was just filling out my social circle. But then it became something different. Facebook became a way to connect with my past. People with whom I wouldn't have lost touch if it were so easy to remain in contact, I was finding again and making a tenuous connection across the Internet. I felt like my circle of friends was growing exponentially. Even though I work from home and hardly have time to socialize beyond the time I spend with my small family, I felt like I was continuing long lost friendships, and reestablishing old relationships.

That might have been good enough, but after a while, Facebook changed again for me. I remember when it happened, when I probably ruined my Facebook experience. I was looking at my best friend's page, the friend I would eventually drop from my Facebook friend list. I noticed that we had a terrific number of friends in common, perhaps 70 or more. But he had more overall friends than I did. And many of those people had been my friends, too, I just hadn't gotten around to adding them to my list.

I went on a friend adding spree. I added every friend from his lists that I recognized. I added his sister, his mother and father. I looked up former students I taught when I was a high school teacher. Not the ones who gave me a hard time and threw things at my head. The ones who did their homework and had interesting things to say.

My friend list shot up in number. I added perhaps a hundred new friends within a couple weeks. My list felt complete. It was almost everyone I knew, or at least everyone who had a Facebook page. I started to feel differently about people who were not on Facebook. I was sad for them, I felt like they had fallen off the map, and they were missing something vital and important.

Then, Facebook started to make me feel sick. It wasn't because I spent too much time on the site. My Facebook time is very judicious and efficient. I get every status update delivered to my RSS feed. I don't miss any updates, and I can breeze through them in no time at all. I don't play any games, or take any quizzes, or recommend any musicians. I occasionally share links on Facebook to generate conversation, but I probably spend less than 10 minutes on the site every day.

Still, I was getting nauseous every time I breezed through my RSS feed of updates. I realized that I was skipping over about ninety percent of the list. A lot of it was updates from those same former students, who are now college students in their twenties, posting updates I cannot relate to in the slightest. Those would be easy to cut, and I realized that it was time to pare down.

But I realized something else about my Facebook list. Some of those people, I really did not like. Not because they had changed significantly since I knew them. Rather, they were people I was forced to get along with either because we were in the same small classes, or we worked for the same company or school. But many of them I never really liked, and I only added them out of a sort of hoarding habit. I was hoarding old relationships, and like any hoarder, a lot of what I was holding onto was actually garbage. And it was starting to stink.

I was bullied in school growing up, not by one particular person, but rather picked on and harassed by a small group of people. I looked at my list and realized that some of those people had somehow made the cut. In truth, I had added them because I was hoping that they were miserable now, or I wanted to see if they had changed at all. But I learned almost nothing from their Facebook updates. Instead, seeing the mundane details of their lives just brought back bad memories every time I saw their names pop up.

Even worse, they were friends with people I truly hated. People who were evil to me and others around them. I had avoided a few of those folks, but every once in a while Facebook would recommend I become friends with one of them. It wasn't Facebook's fault. How could Facebook know that I hated Stephen Bargeron with a passion, and wished upon him a variety of uncomfortable harassments. I was friends with his friends, and the connection seemed obvious to the social site.

Last Friday night I made the cuts I needed to make. I find with this sort of procedure that once you have resigned yourself to making the necessary excisions, it becomes easy to eliminate a very large group of people. It's like planning a wedding. My wife and I had a very small wedding, only about 50 people. We could have invited 300, but for a variety of reasons, we decided to go small. At first, it seemed we could never decide on which 250 people we would not invite, but once we made some very large, sweeping decisions, like inviting only people we see at least once a year, the guest list practically wrote itself.

I started the night with 370 friends. Now, I'm approaching 200 from the other direction. I'll probably pare down about 20 more. I'll know as I see the updates appear in my RSS feed who needs to stay, and who can go.

I have no regrets about cutting these people. At first, I added them to make a connection, but I didn't really want to maintain an ongoing relationship with most of them. I didn't want to hear about every Friday night. I didn't want to hear their religious admonitions. I don't want to hear about what's leaking from their children today. I just wanted to reach out and say: "Hey, over here. Remember me?" And we would remember each other and be happy that we're all still alive and well, and the connection would be made.

Now I've realized I can do that without actually becoming their Facbook friend. I have cut more than a hundred people from my list, but I still know where to find them. So, if I ever need to get in touch with them, I can just look them up on Facebook and send them a message. Assuming they aren't pissed about me dropping them as a friend, I might get a response.

But I think it might be a relief for some of them. I imagine there are an equal number of friends looking at my status updates and saying to themselves: I don't care about the silly things his kid just said, and I don't care what he thinks about that stupid 3D movie.

I've reached out. I've made the connection on Facebook, and planted my flag in the ground so that people can find me if they are looking for me. Now it's time to move on with the rest of my life.