Several years ago, when one of our sons was in high school and had been on Facebook for only a short while, my wife was surprised by the number of “friends” he had on that site—three hundred some, as I recall. She asked him how many were really his friends, and got the usual noncommittal teenager response. Now that he is out of college and gainfully employed, our son’s list of Facebook friends has risen to just about nine hundred. My tally is much smaller, I must confess, and includes many whom I’ve never met.
Such is friendship in the social media age. On Twitter, one has no friends, only “followers”; on LinkedIn, the career networking site, we are likewise friendless, having simply “connections,” a suitably abstract and businesslike term.
Thoughts of some of my Facebook friendships came to mind recently as I read an essay by William Hazlitt. In “The Pleasures of Hating,” Hazlitt talks about the many things we come to hate, especially as we age. “We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.” He continues:
Old friendships are like meats served up repeatedly, cold, comfortless, and distasteful. The stomach turns against them. Either constant intercourse and familiarity breed weariness and contempt; or, if we meet again after an interval of absence, we appear no longer the same. One is too wise, another too foolish for us; and we wonder we did not find this out before. We are disconcerted and kept in a state of continual alarm by the wit of one, or tired to death of the dullness of another.
Perhaps I am a more patient sort than the old crank Hazlitt, but I have not found this to be true, especially with those friends from my high school and college years. Facebook has helped us stay in touch, not so much for bragging (although there is some of that, in a good-natured way) but for recalling happiness in a time of our lives when burdens and responsibilities did not weigh so heavily on us. We also share our current burdens as mature adults, and they feel lighter as a result.
A few years back, I had the chance to visit with an old friend in California with whom I attended high school. Our wives and we all attended college together, and we were close for about a decade while our now-adult children were young. Over the years, Facebook helped us follow the general trajectories of each other’s careers and family lives. About fifteen years had passed since my family and I had moved away, and the reunion of old friends, brief as it was, reinforced our friendship.
Another reunion was almost along the lines of Hazlitt’s warning, when I was on the other side of the country on business and got together for dinner with a college friend I had reconnected with on Facebook. In some serious ways, family life had not been kind to him. His pain touched me then, and I think about him and pray for him often. We all know people to whom life (professionally or personally, or both) has not been kind, and we wish we could help them across the miles, and across the years. It is at times like these that, as the Tracy Lawrence song goes, you find out who your friends are.
When I think about my re-connected friends, two more things become clear. First, high school and college are formative years, the time in a person’s life when friendship comes easiest and is deepest. For me, high school and college were eight years in which I had few responsibilities other than to learn in the company of others, to engage in thoughtful discussions and arguments about important things. There’s nothing like hours spent in conversation about the meaning of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness to form friendships that will last.
As we age, and spend more time at our workplaces, friendships become a more practical and professional matter, and they can easily dissipate when one switches jobs. That’s one reason LinkedIn stresses connections over friends, and the careerist curmudgeons on that site will always remind transgressors that there is a difference between it and Facebook.
Second, I count among my regrets a few abandoned friendships as my school friends and I dispersed to new lives in new places. We had been such great friends at one time; some of us stood up at each other’s weddings. A few months of no letters or calls stretch out into several years, and the gap in time becomes psychologically hard to cross. How does one get over the awkwardness of reconnecting after a decade, or two, or even three? Facebook helps, but there are a few friends from my younger life I miss at times, who have not surfaced on social media. Sometimes, we get glimpses into their lives from others we know.
Perhaps our children—“digital natives,” as they are called—will never have to deal with this final problem, because all of them are somewhere on social media, easily searchable and findable in the internet cloud. Is this a good thing? Perhaps, but only to an extent. There is something to be said for the ability to disappear from the internet when the time comes, just as there is something to be said for limiting our circle of friends to those who really deserve this important title. Hazlitt the sourpuss and I would agree on that.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.