On friendship

I’ve been off social media for three months. It’s not a complete break, as I’ve had torrid, short-term affairs with both Instagram and Twitter, but compared to the borderline unhealthy relationship with Facebook I’ve been nursing since 2006, I can safely say it’s been… different.

Fine. It’s been weird, alright? Strange, isolating, freeing, and uncomfortable all at the same time. If that doesn’t make any sense, join the club. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me either. It’s not like the stories, where the author has some sort of breakthrough moment in every chapter.

What I can tell you without a doubt is that everyone should try it. Not because it’s the cure for anything or will fix your problems, but because only by being outside something, even momentarily, can you see it clearly.

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I’m not going to be that person who waxes endlessly about the benefits of (routine or thing they’re sure will change your life) because I know how most of us feel about these folks. You probably hide from them and so do I.

I’ll keep my posts about being offline brief and sporadic, but I will at times make them, because what’s the point of doing a weird, uncomfortable thing if you never tell anyone about it? Is there any reason for doing the thing?

This attitude, the idea that things are only worth doing if other people notice them, is another reason our performance-obsessed culture has messed us up without most of us taking note, but that’s a topic for another post.

One thing I thought about a lot during my time offline (I had more time to think, and that was weird too) was friendship. Other people have written extensively and well about how friendship in the social media age has changed, not necessarily for the worse, so I won’t repeat their arguments much. I can only say what I have noticed in my own life.

At the beginning of this year, I was reading an essay by someone who decided to try giving up texting. She noticed an immediate difference in who contacted her. I’m paraphrasing, but her essay said something like this: “Only a few people bothered to reach out once they had to call or stop by. The rest, I discovered, wasn’t friendship. It was just noise.”

I thought about that a lot. Honestly, the same kind of thing happened to me when I was off Facebook. Lots of folks have my number and email, but mostly, the way we keep in touch now is through Facebook. Once I wasn’t there, I didn’t hear from most of them.

I stopped getting event invites, unless I heard about them from someone else on Facebook. It felt like a huge segment of people ceased to exist, or had forgotten me.

I can’t blame them for this, because I’ve become the same way.

At first this made me angry. My initial analysis was something like this: we’ve become a bunch of lazy people, sitting inside our bedrooms on the Internet instead of getting out and making real friends.

We’ve let our existing friendships slide and atrophy, subbing in ‘likes’ and conversation threads instead of actual visits, because who wants the awkwardness of in-person discussion? I know I often shy away from it.

When I thought about it a little more (I told you I had a lot of time), I realized this wasn’t entirely accurate. On Facebook, I have more than 600 friends. In high school, I had maybe three close friends, and in college maybe four or five, with a larger circle of acquaintances, but the entirety was never larger than 15, maybe 20.

Somehow between my various social media accounts, I’ve accumulated close to 1,000 friends and followers, and I’m irritated that these people aren’t all calling me up to get coffee. Something is wrong with this picture. It’s not them; it’s a lot me, for having those kinds of expectations of people I’m not really close to, and probably never was. It has nothing to do with who we are; we simply haven’t put the work in to become close.

And it’s a little about the culture we’ve built, the kind that says quantity is value. Friendship isn’t achieved by sweating through hours of awkward conversation to find that one person you really click with. It’s just literally clicking. Do we wonder why the results aren’t the same?

In this culture, it doesn’t really matter if you’re awake at 2 a.m. feeling that no one actually understands you; that you’ve been lonely as long as you can recall; that being in a crowd makes you feel more alone rather than less. What matters is how many likes you get on your latest Instagram selfie or baby picture or political meme. For a while, that feels like enough. If you never take a break, it can feel like enough. Until it isn’t.

I know, I’m not really selling you on the the break thing. “Try it and see how alone and weird you feel” isn’t working, probably. But feeling bad isn’t the point. Realizing your good feeling was fake, shitty frosting a lot of the time is worth checking on.

As much as I’d like this to be a simple ‘get out of your room and connect with real people’ take, that can’t be it, because of course, the people on the other side of our keyboards are real people, just like the people living not in the heartland of America are real Americans.

I think it’s extremely dangerous to start saying ‘this is real and that is not real’ and when we do that, we better be pretty darn sure who is not real. That is a step to dehumanizing people and saying they do not matter. There’s enough of that lately. Online friends are real. Some of my dearest friends now live far away from me and I mostly connect with them online or by phone.

I think what I’d like to say is that being off Facebook made me think a lot more deeply about friendship in general, and how little effort I put into most of it. I feel dissatisfied with the state of my adult friendships in many ways, not because of the kind and wonderful people I know, but because I don’t know them as well as I’d like to.

I am positive I’m not alone in this, mostly because of the dozens of posts and articles and conversations I’ve seen and heard from my peers on friendship and loneliness.

We all have a lot of acquaintances, but most of us, especially more introverted folks, have few good, trusted friends, people we can tell the hard things to at weird times of the day or  night. Being more connected hasn’t really helped with this, because forming rock-solid friendship takes time. Hours. Hundreds and hundreds of hours and uninterrupted attention most of us don’t give to anything anymore.

That’s a good place to start on friendship, isn’t it? Knowing however alone you feel, it’s not just you? C.S. Lewis has one of my favorite quotes about this.

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So now what? As usual, the first step in fixing anything is just to notice it’s happening. I think my Facebook break helped me notice something that had been happening to me for a long time without my notice. I needed it. Maybe you do too. It’s your call, of course.

I’m planning to approach my friendships with more care and intention than I have for a long time, because I realize now how much I value them, and how rare good, true friends truly are.

How about you?

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4 thoughts on “On friendship

    1. I’ve written a little about it in these posts: https://wordpainter09.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/interview-with-an-introvert/
      and https://wordpainter09.wordpress.com/2017/11/27/lonely-in-a-crowd/

      But I can definitely think of more to say. I’m really bothered by this trend. Also I can’t recommend the book The Joy of Missing Out enough; the author talks about how we over-document our lives a lot, to the point that the documentation has become the enjoyment. Reading that first gave me the idea for a lot of these posts.

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