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A Friend Is a Friend Is a Friend?

by Andrew Sacks

With apologies to Gertrude Stein, the law of identity may not hold true in social networking communities. Sometimes, it most decidedly isn’t what it is. Or, more precisely, it isn’t what it is commonly called.

Several years ago, I heard a TV comedian rhetorically ask the audience for the definition of a friend. He immediately provided the answer: “It’s what you had before you joined Facebook.” My own experience with social networks teaches me that truer words have rarely been spoken.

Depending on the online service, they may be known as “friends,” “contacts,” or “connections,” but they are customarily only the most tangential and ephemeral of comrades. However, this flighty relationship is usually accompanied, while it lasts, by the most solemn and sincere of protestations. “Dear Friend.” “Dearest friend.” And so on, ad nauseam.

And this is for folks we know almost nothing about, really, and will never meet in person. Yet in the topsy-turvy social world of cyberspace, this is how it’s done. One recalls the advice of Polonius to his son, Laertes, on the latter’s imminent departure for France:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade.

Let’s just hope Laertes wasn’t on Twitter.

Another element of the social network “friend” phenomenon is the characteristic hyperbolic positivism. Everybody one is closely connected to and interacts with on a regular basis is incredible, everything they do is awesome, and every place they go is fantastic. Gosh, cyberspace must be a little like the common conceptions of Paradise; certainly I am not customarily moved to such panegyrics in my actual life on Earth. I am again reminded of a literary quote: “Praising all alike is praising none” (John Gay).

There is, little doubt, a psychological truism or two at work here. When one doth protest too much, there are reasons. Queen Gertrude knew it, and we should acknowledge it as well. Many people who spend a lot of time on social media sites do so because of emotional and psychological need as well as for mere diversion. And the more time on such sites, the less for actual social interaction, not to mention romantic love, and its essential partner, sex. It is, after all, no great wonder that paroxysms of positivism and flattery are the norm.

Finally, I am reminded of yet another appropriate quotation, and I trust that it will contrast starkly with the pablum of wannabe poetry and “insightful” quotations one also commonly suffers through on the sites of social networking: from Alceste, the world-weary protagonist of Molière’s The Misanthrope: “Let’s put off friendship and get acquainted first.”

On the other hand, perhaps social networking sites are simply to be congratulated. They have, ultimately, given adults what was formerly the special province of children only: the right and opportunity to have imaginary friends.

Copyright © 2014 by Andrew Sacks

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