I currently have 880 Facebook “friends.” I placed friends in quotations because it is unrealistic that anyone has that many friends in the traditional definition of the word. True, many are friends in the classical sense, but most are associations made based on some other paradigm. My criteria for Facebook friendship is relatively loose – the connection must be made through some channel other than just Facebook, that is, I do not accept random friend requests. I get them often, usually based upon mutual friendship; once I discover where that outside connection is, I’ll accept those requests. In other words – I need to know who the requester is beyond a profile picture and a status update.
Some of those friends are friends I have never met; yet I have a personal connection based in private correspondence such that they are considered actual friends. Perhaps not exactly close friends, but we are not talking about casual acquaintances either. Many were forged through this blog, well before my participation in the style of social networking that Facebook epitomizes. My involvement in these social networks (Myspace, Facebook and now Twitter) was not a natural extension of my social network, indeed, my joining each network can only be characterized as reluctant. However, once on board the benefits proved numerous and obvious. Take my Facebook high school network, for instance. Most of those old friends were long lost and likely would have remained so if not for a means of ready access and Facebook provides a forum for regular, albeit sometimes superficial, communication. In some respects, it is not unlike the sort of communication that actually took place in high school, but I digress...
Interestingly enough, my path has taken me down the road of academia and my area of study is human communication. Although this is a wide field of study and my specific area isn’t necessarily social media, all areas are intertwined and the pursuit of an MA in communication studies requires extensive study in all areas. Communication is, in fact, the umbrella under which all other knowledge is formed – symbolic communication elevates us above all other known forms of life and makes possible the civilization we find so convenient. The world as we know it does not come to be without the ability to communicate symbolically. However, as robust as our tools of communication are, they can be woefully inadequate when trying to relate what is really going on with us and nowhere is this more pronounced than in personal interaction.
When we communicate on a face-to-face basis, we are privy to communicative symbols that extend far beyond the verbal. Body language has been studied extensively, but so have other forms of non-verbal communication such as appearance, intonation, pace, and word choice (not what the words themselves mean, but which are chosen and how they are arranged sends a signal, too). When communication is limited to text only, much of that is lost. We have attempted to make up for some of those non-verbal cues with emoticons, abbreviations and even our choice of a profile picture or avatar, but those measures only make up for a small piece of what is lost. Some of the same sense of loss was experienced with the invention and proliferation of the telephone, but at least then the audible cues were still there. With a purely text-based conversation – especially when that text is limited to Twitter’s 140 characters – there is precious little to go on.
Friendship, like all personal relationships, requires maintenance. The social networking platforms give us an ease of maintenance never before available. It gives me a means of maintaining a relationship with 880 “friends.” But there is no way to maintain any degree of closeness with that many friends under any circumstances. The best I can achieve is to stay in contact with a few – however irregularly or infrequently – on a deeper level. It can be done through computer-mediated channels, but not through the simple posting of status updates. There was once a time, before the telephone and even before the telegraph, when written communication was the only way to maintain relationships with friends and family over long distances. Electronic communication did not supersede it: Facebook, for example, provides a means of private and in-depth communication beyond instant messaging, wall posts and status updates. And there is always email.
But the best way is to stay close the old-fashioned way - face-to-face (and the phone, due to its ubiquity and entrenchment in our society, can be included). By availing ourselves to the richest communication experience available – one that goes beyond mere short messages, status updates and wall posts – we can receive a message in all its fullness. Technology has been incredibly useful in helping me to stay in touch with a vast network of associations, to rekindle old friendships, to forge new ones that never would have been possible without it and to gain the insight from those well beyond my geographic limitations. But where the quantity comes easy, the quality takes effort. Nothing can replace face-to-face communication, but with a little effort computer-mediated communication could become just as robust as telephone-mediated communication has. And over the vast distances in this global village the world is becoming, short of teleportation electronic communication is the next best thing.