Has Facebook Become the Barometer for What's Real in Our Lives?

Photo: Pixabay

I remember the address book that lived in a drawer in the table where my parents’ landline telephone sat. I wasn’t a very social or sociable kid, but when I made a new friend and was given their phone number, I had special permission to add it to the book. Steve G., Joe S., Jay A., wherever you are now, you earned a special place in that red, faux-leather address book that still exists on Weaver Road in Ohio. That was the official demarcation point separating “my friend” from “kid I talk to in class.”

Today? Friendship is not official until it’s Facebook Official. It’s the modern day address book, a catalog of our friends and acquaintances. And unlike the old pen-and-paper address book, you can look at a Facebook profile and see your web of social connections. 82 friends in common, 23 friends in common, friends-of-friends you might not have met yet, but who are people you may know!

But we’ve all got some randoms on our friends list, too. The lone trees in the wilderness with no web of connections, no mutual friends, holdovers from other lives or social groups. Past girlfriends or lost connections who sought you out (or who you sought out) to scratch some existential itch. Because if you’re not friends on Facebook, how do you know they’re real?

There are names I type into the search bar from time to time. School friends or dimly recalled vacation acquaintances, folks I met once or simply haven’t heard from since they moved away when we were both in the fourth grade. Are they real? Are they misremembered ghosts? Will it make them more real if I can find their online avatars, send a request, and see it confirmed? Does your in-person connection with another human soul still count if there’s no virtual proof?

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check the notifications on my smartphone for the words “The first thing on your calendar today…” It’s another sign that it’s 2014 and we live in the future. A sizeable portion of our working minds have been outsourced to external hard drives. It’s such a ubiquitous idea that anyone who spent any time at all watching the Every Simpsons Ever marathon on FXX recently has seen the Windows Phone commercial for Cortana, a potential Siri replacement that promises to help an affably-voiced man remember his wife’s anniversary.

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This idea is not even presented as a joke in the Windows Phone commercial -- it assumes I’m not going to remember my anniversary, and the presence of Cortana, the female-voiced virtual assistant with a vaguely Latina-sounding name (“Cortana” is actually the name of an extinct land snail from Brazil) is meant to be reassuring and necessary to my 21st century life.

And while I bristle at Cortana’s insinuations that I’ll need her reminders to get through my daily life, the truth is that I do use my phone and my calendar and my social networks for things like this all the time. The only people I wish happy birthdays to are the ones who plug their birthdays into Facebook. If I’m throwing a party, the invitations live there too. Facebook has become more than just an address book or a calendar -- it’s an approximation and representation of my real life, to the point that things really do seem more real if they’re mirrored online.

In 11th grade, an exchange student from Japan came to my high school. He didn’t live with me and my family, but he joined my Dungeons & Dragons group and became a fixture in our small, nerdy circle. On his last day in the United States, Yusuke and I took turns playing Chrono Trigger on the Super Nintendo, and he explained that the character designs were created by Akira Toriyama, an artist I’d never heard of who was well-known to my nerd-equivalents in Japan.

And then for a good ten years, after Yusuke went back to Japan, my friend and I lost touch. We didn’t speak, write, or have any evidence we’d ever met aside from memory and a few photographs.

And then one day, and a simple Facebook search later, there he was again. He lived outside of Tokyo, he was married and had two sons, he was eating a cheeseburger in his profile picture. I sent a friend request, he accepted it, and there was proof. Matthew became friends with Yusuke.

A nearby message stated we had no mutual friends. Was that true?

There are people I know in real life, people I share dozens of actual friends with, that I haven’t friend requested virtually. I see them in life, but not enough that I have much curiosity about their Buzzfeed quiz results or vacation pictures.

Some folks are opting out of virtual social networks altogether, either as political statements or as lifestyle choices. It makes it hard to remember their birthdays, and it also means I miss out on casually absorbing their life events. One of my Facebook-less friends got very sick last year, and she passed away in July. I found out the old fashioned way -- well, the new-old fashioned way -- via email from a real-life-mutual-friend. I flew to Chicago to attend Anne’s memorial service.

Anne’s sister Renee, who I hadn’t seen in ten years or more, remembered me by sight. She remembered the wedding we’d all attended -- Renee was a singer in the wedding band -- and she remembered the pig that had roasted nearby. At lunch after the wake, I read from an email exchange between Anne and myself from a few months before. I hugged Renee and her mother, and I sat around a real table with Anne’s real friends, and we told stories in real time, face to face and voice to voice.

A few days later, back in California, I looked Renee up on Facebook. I sent her a friend request, which she accepted. Her profile picture was an image of her little sister Anne, smiling at the camera, facing toward the camera and away from a sunset reflection on a lake. The social network said Renee and I had no mutual friends.

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But I knew that wasn’t true.

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