Back before the Internet, many of us sent out lots of Christmas cards every year. For many people on your Christmas card list, it was the only contact you would have with that person every year. Long distance phone calls were stupid expensive back then. So once a year you’d hear from your former neighbor and get caught up on what was happening in their family and get a picture to see how the kids were growing. Other friends were bar friends you only saw at the pub, or the people you only saw in your adult softball league, or your work friends that you rarely saw outside of work and the occasional Friday after work happy hour. All those friend groups were siloed, with little crossover.
Then the Internet happened.
And not much changed. I launched ODonnellWeb in 12/31/1995. By 2005, I think I had reconnected with exactly one old friend due to my blog. My blog was not obscure. It was #1 on just about every search engine for my name for that entire time. Anybody from my past that had a fleeting, “I wonder what Chris is up to” thought was one search from knowing the answer to that question. As far as I know, not one person ever did that. The one old high school friend I did reconnect with was also an early blogger, and although I don’t remember exactly how we reconnected, I think it was more serendipitous than either one of us actively seeking the other out. So even 10 years after the introduction of the Internet, Christmas Card friends were still that, people you heard from once per year with a very sanitized, upbeat summary of how life was for them.
I did make many great new friends because of blogging though. Shared interests in home education, the Boston Red Sox, music, and Purdue led to many new acquaintances that I’m still friends with today. In many cases, I consider these people close friends, even though in some cases we still haven’t met in real life.
But there was no crossover at all. My friends from a certain Red Sox blog had zero interaction with the home school activist community, and probably didn’t know each other existed. The Internet had delivered the ability to connect and form communities with far flung people, but the communities for the most part enjoyed the same separation in your life that existed prior to 1995.
Then Facebook happened.
Suddenly, all those Christmas Card friends were now in your feed every day. That guy you knew only as a diehard Red Sox fan turned out to also be a diehard homophobe, and your best friend from junior high is also a conspiracy nut. Meanwhile your chief rival from high school hit the dot com home run and updates Facebook 4X a day with photos of his fabulous appearing life. The Internet, or at least the Facebook part of it, had delivered on the promise of a global melting pot. Whether or not that is a good thing is questionable.
It turns out that people, or at least this person, likes some silos in their life. Not knowing the politics of those folks from the Red Sox blog comments was a good thing, and my junior high best friend being a Christmas Card friend was also a good thing (Not referring to anybody real here, as far as you know). It turns out that we lost contact with our high school friends for a reason, we had no real reason to stay in close contact.
It’s not all bad though. I’m better friends today with some folks from high school than I probably was back in high school, and that is because we reconnected on Facebook and then in some cases have reconnected in real life. Some of those imaginary Internet friends from the blog are still friends that I’m in regular contact with via Facebook, and more than a couple of them have become real life friends too.
So I can’t just hate on Facebook, because there is some good there. But the friends with context issue is still there too. Obviously, we can not connect with anybody we choose on Facebook. However, the societal pressure is a little more subtle than that, and it’s damn hard to silo people that way. There is a general expectation of being friends on Facebook if you know people in real life. Facebook’s tools to manage those silos are pretty much unusable. Even if you try, you are likely to screw it up at some point, and suddenly your parents are very confused by the pictures of you from the Furry convention.
If you’ve read this far hoping for an answer, you are going to be disappointed. I don’t have one. But I think it’s a conversation worth having. I don’t think I’m alone, or even in a minority, in thinking the great mash up of our various social communities into one Facebook feed is generally speaking, more of a PITA than a blessing.
Thoughts? Use that nifty comment box below, or if you must, you can comment on Facebook too.