Thursday, December 15, 2011

Adventures in Facebookland

I don’t have a Facebook page. For a long time, I considered that a mere detail, something to be owned up to if and when someone else asked about it, but otherwise one tiny item on a very long list of things I don’t have one of. Some of the things on that list, mind you, surprise even me, at least a little. I like to skate, but I don’t own a pair of ice skates. I like Mozart, but I don’t own a boxed set of the piano concertos. (When necessary, I borrow the cantor’s.) I am entering my second decade as editor of the quarterly journal, Conservative Judaism, but I don’t own a scanner or a fax machine. It never seemed odd to me, however, that I didn’t have a Facebook page. Joan has one, but she almost never goes there to see who’s posted what on her wall or formally to ignore who has invited her to be his or her friend. (She prefers, I believe, passively to ignore them by not making herself aware of their invitations in the first place.) I know what Facebook is, more or less. From time to time, I open Joan’s page to see what’s new with whom (and, of course, to spy on my children, although it’s hardly spying if everybody else in the universe can also see what’s on their pages), but I’ve never been drawn to the experience especially and certainly nowhere near arrestingly enough to want personally to dive into those waters. Maybe it’s an age thing: Facebook users in my age category constitute a mere 5% of the total number of users, whereas more than three-quarters are between the ages of 13 and 34.

All that being the case, you can imagine my response when I noted in the paper this week that something like two-thirds of the entire population of the United States have Facebook pages. Talk about being left behind! And those 200,000,000 people are only a quarter of the world-wide total of 800,000,000 users. That’s a lot of faces! And those, so the Facebook people themselves, are only active users. People who opened up pages once but then never visited them again are not counted. Nor are people who visit so infrequently as not to show up as “real” users at all in their statistics. It’s a big number. Of the countries of the world, only India and China have larger populations than Facebookland. The third largest country in the world in terms of population, our own, has fewer than half the number of citizens than Facebook has people signed up. The world has more people signed up for Facebook than all the countries of Europe together have citizens. (By comparison, Twitter has a mere 380 million users, Linked-In a mere 100 million.) You get the picture. A big number. A lot of people. If Facebook were a country, it wouldn’t be Liechtenstein.

And also a lot of money. Facebook is the third largest web-based business in the United States, right behind Google and Amazon. Facebook’s value was estimated a year ago at about $14 billion dollars. And now they’re making plans to go public, and hoping to raise about $10 billion in the process. No matter how you measure it, that’s a lot of money for a company that was only launched in February of 2004, not a full eight years ago, and which (and, yes, I know how old this makes me sound) doesn’t actually make anything at all. Except friendships. Sort of.

And that brings me to the topic I’d like to raise this week for discussion. Friendship, for all it feels like a basic feature of human life, is an elusive thing both to define and to cultivate. What is it exactly? We all have friends, obviously. And we understand that being someone’s friend is qualitatively different than being someone’s relative (or someone’s employee or neighbor or love interest or business partner). But what are the essential traits that distinguish friendship from other kinds of relationships? Has the concept evolved naturally over the millennia that human beings have been befriending each other? If so, then is the great innovation brought by Facebook to its four-fifths of a billion users—the notion that friendships have no natural course, that friendships are only dormant but never actually defunct and can always be resurrected, that one’s friends can always be located and (since they’ve already—and apparently permanently—been befriended) friended? Or maybe the right term in such a case should be re-friended, in which usage the re- (just like in refried beans) hardly means anything at all since they were, so the fantasy, friends all along anyway.

For the nation that gave Facebook to the world, Americans themselves are actually not very good at being friends. There was a study published a few years ago in the American Sociological Review (a journal published by the American Sociological Association), according to which Americans on the average have fewer closer friends today than ever before. According to the study, a full 25% of Americans have no close friends at all. And the number of close friendships people who do have such relationships reported having dropped by half from 4 to 2 in the twenty-one years from 1985 to 2006. Moreover, even the quality of the friendships we do maintain has dropped over the years. C.S. Lewis, one of the few Christian apologist-authors whose work for some reason I don’t find off-putting, wrote this in his book, The Four Loves:

To the ancients, friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it. We admit of course that besides a wife and family a man needs a few “friends.” But the very tone of the admission, and the sort of acquaintanceships which those who make it would describe as 'friendships', show clearly that what they are talking about has very little to do with that philía which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book.

I know what he means. I read Cicero’s book, called On Friendship, when I was in graduate school and was very impressed both by the clarity of his prose and, more to the point, by the picture of friendship he draws in the book. (Speaking of Cicero, have you all read the first two volumes in Robert Harris’s terrific, so-far-unfinished, trilogy about Rome in the age of Cicero? The first two books, Imperium and Conspirata, were two of the best pieces of historical fiction—and two of the best lawyer novels, to boot—I can recall reading in years. I loved them both and so will you! The third book is coming soon.) But I digress…and the portrait Cicero draws of friendship in his book is stunning. Friendship, he writes, improves the world because friends have the unique capability of making each other virtuous, of bringing each other’s nascent sense of virtue to the surface and to the fore. He writes with the deepest passion about friendship and the ways it provides the only truly suitable background against which people might conduct their family life in the foreground with dignity and purpose. Life, he suggests, without friendship is mere existence. I vaguely recalled this quote, which I managed to find on-line and which I think sums the concept up admirably: “All excellence is rare,” Cicero wrote, “and that moral excellence which makes for true friendship is as rare as any. On the other hand, it would be unreasonable and presumptuous for people to expect to find in their friends qualities which they themselves can never really hope to attain, or to demand from their friends an indulgence which they are not prepared themselves to offer. Friendship was given to us to be an incentive to virtue, and not as an indulgence to vice or to mediocrity! Although solitary virtue cannot scale the peaks of greatness, one may yet hope to do so with the loyal help of a comrade. And comradeship of this kind includes within it all that human beings most desire.”

Having a true friend is thus to be understood as one of life’s great boons. It is the platform on which greatness, so Cicero, rests, the springboard to the kind of virtuous living to which we all aspire but which none of us can quite attain on his or her own. More than love itself—another of life’s necessities, but one that speaks to the human need for passion and pleasure than specifically for virtue—friendship creates the context for life lived large and lived well.

And now we have the Facebook version, the kind that makes it possible not to need to spend a lifetime cultivating true friendship with two or three other souls one chooses as one’s intimates in the course of shared decades of moral and intellectual growth, but instead to “friend” thousands of people almost at once. Obviously, no one could ever have that many friends by following the old-fashioned model, but that is the beauty of the new concept: no matter how long ago you graduated from elementary school, those pals you played in the schoolyard with are still there, still out there somewhere in the ether, still available to you if only you choose to friend them and they you. That you have no real contact with them doesn’t matter. That you don’t really have any emotional ties to them is deemed irrelevant. The maximum number of friends you can theoretically have on Facebook is 5,000. But there are apparently ways to get around that restriction and there are reportedly people out there with hundreds of thousands of friends. I hope they don’t all expect birthday cards!

I believe that friendships, like most things, have natural life spans. The boys from my cabin at Camp Oakdale were true friends of mine when I was nine, ten, and eleven years old. (The camp closed after that and I, as must even eleven–year-olds under the right circumstances, moved on.) I don’t miss them. I suppose I’m mildly curious about where they are today, about what became of them. But the truth is that—to speak honestly—they’re just names from my past, albeit ones that evoke very pleasant memories. We’re not friends. Nor am I friends with the guys from my Hebrew School car pool. Nor with the boys with whom I shared my mercifully brief career in the Little League. Nor with all sorts of people I knew once, whose company I enjoyed, whom I thought of as my friends…and whom I haven’t seen in decades. I wish them well! But I don’t want to be friended by people who aren’t actually my friends. And I don’t need to be friended by people who actually are my friends. So who needs the whole thing? And that is why I don’t have a Facebook page!

I said I didn’t want a Kindle and now it’s my favorite toy. I said I didn’t want an iPhone and ditto. (I heard that! They’re both my favorites.) But I really don’t want a presence on Facebook. I certainly don’t want five thousand Facebook friends. I can barely keep up with the real ones I actually do have!

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