I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men.
A week or so back, my husband and I were stepping out of an exit in our neighbourhood mall, and someone said hello. We turned, and saw another couple making their way to the parking, the same as us. The man who had hailed us had halted with a smile, which began fading a little when he saw no signs of recognition on my spouse’s face. We are Facebook friends, he said, and suddenly, all was well. The slight embarrassment gave way to ruefulness: everyone knows that it is perfectly alright to not know every single person who is your “Facebook friend”, at least not in dimly-lit underground parking lots.
That little incident set me thinking about something so big that it subsumes our lives. Has the definition of friendship changed in the Age Of Facebook? And has it changed the way we communicate and, even more crucially, feel?
Many things are at work when we make friends. Similarity of ideas, thoughts, and values bring people together. This is age-old. Opposites attract too, and find other ways to forge connections. But the lasting relationships are based on mutual “like”: I love reading, but I have good friends who do not read at all. However, those who do read, are better friends. And those who read what I like are best friends.
The alchemy present when two people connect is not based on simple algorithms, and the way it has begun playing out in the online sphere makes it even more complex. Technology has used this plangent web of connections, placed it on a two-dimensional surface which offers us, possibly, a semblance of pleasure and pain, in ways that mimic real life.
Which is why Facebook is the biggest come-hither on the planet right now: come unto me, and I will give you a multitude of likes.
Your inner circle, pre or post Facebook, remain those you can confide in, and be completely yourself: these are pick-up-the-phone-and-call-in-a-heartbeat friends. Spreading outward, in concentric circles, are people you feel kinship with, but will not share the deepest recesses of your thoughts. And rippling from there are circles which combine acquaintances, or people you may know somewhat vaguely.
And yet I do believe that some things have radically changed. Because of the sheer speed with which we are able to share thoughts, or a sentiment, or opinion with scores of people. To me, and to everyone else I speak to, that is the defining change that Facebook has brought about.
More and more, we post, share and comment, knowing full well that we will get sucked into multiple threads, multiple conversations over staggeringly different time zones: we have begun taking this frenetic pace of connecting for granted, but this had never happened before we hawked our faces to the canny Mr Zuckerberg.
The space for ourselves is diminishing because even when we go offline, our minds are brimming with the minutae of other peoples’ lives; increasingly, we inhabit their worlds, stepping away from our own. More and more, we are other people.
The consequences sink in only when we try shaking off all those threads and re-enter ourselves: and it is harder to do so, because all that stuff out there is so much fun, and our lives so dull and dreary.
EM Foster’s famous words, “only connect”, were prescient, and beautifully apt as a descriptor of the time we are living in. “What’s defined as friends in Facebook would more accurately be called connections,” says Joy Bhattacharjya, former KKR honcho, presently Project Director, FIFA under-17 World Cup, 2017. His posts have an enviously eclectic range — from quirky Hindi cinema trivia to Kolkata’s phuchkas.
The manner and frequency with which you friend and unfriend depends upon your personality type. Popular news anchor Nidhi Razdan makes sure she know everyone on her friends list. “Once I know that I am with people I trust, Facebook is a good way to share thoughts, ideas, opinions,” she says.
Kamalini Natesan, mother of two, teacher of French, thinks of Facebook as a “good friend”. “It is my alter-self , as well as ‘someone’ who holds up a buffer between my ‘real’ self and the world”.
But isn’t that contradictory?. Sure, she says, of course it is. “But then we are always contradicting ourselves, aren’t we? Facebook gives me the chance to be all my selves.”
For me, Facebook has been both boon and bane. There are ways to control who sees what but I am too lazy to spend all that time creating lists. If I had to segregate people into vertical silos, why would I be on a social network in the first place? I see the advantages of reaching out to many simultaneously; I also see the problems of over-sharing, but what’s not to like about the number of “likes”?
But how about those who are trying to create alter-egos, and alter-selves, and not getting anywhere? When the doors open, and we are revealed, only to face indifference, what then?
“Facebook, and other social media, taps into our innermost vulnerabilities,” says Dr Maitri Chand, family therapist. “We need new rules of engagement, and filters. They come in handy when we are faced with what appears to be rejection. Many a times we forget that what we can see on our timeline is not always visible to everyone at the same time,” she says.
So has the nature of friendship itself changed? “I think the core of friendship is the same,” she says. “It is the level of intimacy that has changed. It is not possible to have the same intensity of emotional engagement with everyone, so obviously intimacy gets diluted”.
My fear is that we can hollow ourselves out with all the sharing. If we spread ourselves thin, what will be left of us? Our addiction to the little spurts of dopamine every time we hear a notification ping can keep us away from working at real-life relationships. One takes effort, the other is easy-peasy.
My even bigger fear is that we will never again be able to be uni-focus, or totally alive to a moment, because we have learnt to live in a state of distracted attention.
At this rate, I might even start looking with approval at my friends who stay away from Facebook. “My cup runneth over,” says Nalin Pant, chemistry professor at IIT-Delhi, and a magic distiller of spirits which he generously shares in place of posts. “I have my family and friends, and that’s enough. At the heart of all social and anthropological argument is whether I am better or worse off than my peers. If all you have as a measure of yourself is this, then your internal metric is hollow; who needs that?”
In other words, it comes down to what Pooh said to Piglet: “It’s more fun to talk to someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words, but short, easy words like: what’s for lunch?”
Hold on a moment, though, while I swiftly update my status with a photo of my platter.
The story appeared in print with the headline That’s What Friends are For