All right, I've been wanting to start hammering this out for awhile. Let's do this, it's big and ugly and gross, but it has to be done. I'll start this episode of Trollin' with using myself as an example, because I'm that kind of asshole. Every three or four months I open up Facebook and go to the grand list of "friends" I've "connected" with. I have found over the last few years that it gets increasingly difficult to get to that big list of friends, that stand-alone page which compiles the limits of one's so-called "social sphere". Anyway, every three or four months I scroll through it and start deleting people. Click, gone. Friendship ended. Click, remove. Relationship destroyed. I have a lot of fun doing this because never before in the history of human civilization has ejecting people from one's life been so effortless.
I remove friendships every few months. I prune my friends, because apparently it's that easy. When I "friend" someone on Facebook, usually it means I met them at a party or through a friend or something, and I'm humoring the idea that we could actually have something in common. Business-types have known this as "networking" (before there was "social networking" in any digital sense). While going through my big ugly list, maybe a dozen people come into question. Is this person someone I want to keep in touch with? Is this someone I have talked to a second time? Have they even been friendly to me at all? Are their status updates goddamn annoying? So I delete them if any of the answers are unfavorable. Often I'll delete people just to see what will happen. It's interesting to me. The mechanization of social life. Easy as a click, they're gone.
What does all this mean for us? I've read a few essays and a couple books that speak specifically about this question, but all of them are rather distant and academic (mostly because they're written by 30- or 40-year-old professors who aren't even using Facebook regularly). However, some of the points they make are accurate. I don't really want to go over statistics, because that turns trolling into scholarly pursuits, and maybe one day when I have nothing better to do I'll start including numbers to back my claims. For now, I just enjoy making seemingly baseless statements, as much of my generation does.
If you are between the ages of 18 and 30, you hopefully remember a time when the word "friend" was not immediately associated with anything electronic or online. For people over 30, the word most likely still doesn't mean anything other than someone you know and care about. Can people under 30 say the same thing? A friend. What is the definition of "friend"? Before Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, friend had no definition. That was the beauty of it, really. Yes, it had a dictionary definition, but it did not have a real social definition. It had a cloudy, gray-area, different-for-everyone definition. (The beauty of an idea that has not manifest.) One person's friend was another person's acquaintance, or coworker, or former friend. Today on MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networking sites, there is only one definition. Whether it be "connection" or "friend" or "follower", everyone is suddenly on the same field.
So if the past had no definitive "friend" status, what do we have now? What is the definition according to social networking? A friend is anyone. Friend, really, has absolutely no definition. It's gone from being a formless idea to practically meaningless. In the early days of MySpace, it was a common trend to frantically "friend" anyone and everyone, whether you knew them or not. The person with the biggest friend-count felt like they were the coolest, and they were (unfortunately) perceived as such by their peers. We were adolescents, and we didn't know any better. But kids still think this, and not everyone grows out of it, this new anti-definition of "friend".
It was a wonderful time when I didn't have to define "friend". People think that when I de-friend them on Facebook, somehow I'm cutting them off from my life. This is the universe we live in now, unfortunately. What did people do when all we had were phone numbers? When seeing someone from your past meant running into them at the store or at a party, rather than looking them up online? We had a past we could easily avoid, we didn't have to maintain a history, we didn't have to see status updates from people we haven't talked to in years. In a way, that transience allows the good ones to rise up to the top of our personal lives, become precious fixtures, rather than just another name in a list.
Literally, a list. We have become so mechanized, so disconnected from ourselves, that we all actually have written-out lists of our friends. We rely more and more on technology to maintain the functions of our lives. During the industrial revolution, this meant machines that could literally do the heavy lifting for us. Now, in the digital revolution, it means machines can do the social heavy lifting for us. We get friend suggestions. We're searchable. Facebook will even tell you to catch up with someone you haven't talked to in awhile. (How does it know I haven't talked to them? This subtle point is important, it wants you to believe that Facebook is social life more so than reality.) The industrial revolution allowed humans more leisure time, which we thought would mean more time to think and develop as humans. Instead, we found ways to become even more complacent about pushing things from our minds for machines to do for us. (Amusing ourselves right into a robot uprising!)
The more we customize our lives and restrict things to our "friends", the narrower our vision becomes. The less we see things that are contrary to our way of thinking, or challenge us at all, the less able we are to cope with reality or learn and understand life. The overall generational divide is also terrible, the loss of adults taking precedence in our lives means we hear less of their experience, we don't learn the lessons they learned. Us kids think that we're just going to revolutionize everything and pave over the world with our social media, but it doesn't work that way. And I don't mean kids have to grow up, no. I mean kids have to allow themselves to grow up, because nobody will know when it needs to happen. But if kids are stuck online and they don't speak to their parents or adults of any kind, they have no basis for what growing up means.
Being able to define friend - to yourself, alone - used to mean a lot. It was a personal definition. It was human. I'm not saying people don't define it for themselves, obviously we're not all machines, but imagine a child growing up from birth in this environment. Imagine a child being born to parents who had grown up in that environment. Letting a piece of software handle social life for us means that we don't get actual time being social, we don't develop things like thick skin, personability, emotional openness. (We do, of course, see people and be social at parties and work and stuff, but the facilitation of social norms are becoming more and more mechanized.) One of the biggest problems I have with young people is that they don't know anything about eye contact or silence. Silence doesn't have to be awkward, and I like looking at people when I speak to them in real life. I don't want to get into broader terms of intellectual ability and cognitive skills, but the more time spent worrying about your friends online, the less time you spend doing something productive, or creative, or meaningful. If you think sitting on Facebook for four hours a day can lead to anything that's really going to improve your life, you should just deactivate your account right now. Cold turkey. It's like smoking. Just don't do it, you should know better.
And it's all-or-nothing, really. You cannot not be on Facebook. You'll never get invited to things. You'll miss half of what people are referring to. You'll be an outcast, basically. You might be the friendliest, happiest, most attractive person in the world, but if you don't have a MySpace page, your peers might not remember that you exist. So back to my opening, how I like pruning my social life. I'm not really that robotic. I really do prune my friends list, but it doesn't actually mean anything to me. If they're removed from my friends list, it just means it didn't work out in some way, as I said. Doesn't matter why. It shouldn't matter. Unfortunately, people think that when you're removed as a friend, you're actually no longer friends. We can still be friends, we can give it another go, I've just stopped making the effort if the effort doesn't seem to be worth making. I've re-friended people plenty of times. These are the social politics of the 21st century.
But I like living in my old world of fuzzy friend logic. I say, fuck being friends. Get rid of some of them. If you have a list of 300+ people, you're only masturbating in public. Trim it, you don't need half of those people. You probably only have any interest in about 50 of them, maybe. Become disconnected. Define your idea of friendship, and care more about that than your news feed of "friends". Allow yourself to grow up and out of things. Sit down and talk to someone a lot older than you. Learn from them. We like to think that our parents are old and they don't know anything, but that's not possible. They know more than you. But perhaps I'm being a bit ridiculous, and maybe all the kids who grow up on Facebook will eventually hit that "grown up" phase just fine and abandon their childish online profiles. But maybe not, especially when social media sites just keep getting bigger, and we can access them literally anywhere, and even our parents and employers and grandparents are signing up. It becomes just another piece of our lives. Television was our parents' jewel, we're going to have Facebook? I don't really know what to think.
All I know is that the only fun I've had on Facebook or MySpace has been spamming other peoples' walls. Most everything else eventually just makes me depressed. The internet is for lulz. Think about it.