Oliver Burkeman writes about a woman who actually visits all of her Facebook friends to see if they're really friends. She's writing a book about the experience, of course. It's one of those stunt ideas that will become a book whose message we will skim, we will blog and tweet about it for a week, we will stroke our chins thoughtfully, and then we will toss the book into the pile going to the library's book sale. Burkeman uses her story as a lens to explore the popular research on social ties, friendships offline and on-, and the idea of "decluttering" your life by letting go of the "friends" we accumulate as easily as we accumulate books, shoes, knick-knacks, and other physical clutter. How many friends can you really manage? How can you measure the quality of a friendship, either online or offline?
"Friend clutter", likewise, accumulates because it's effortless to accumulate it: before the internet, the only bonds you'd retain were the ones you actively cultivated, by travel or letter-writing or phone calls, or those with the handful of people you saw every day. Friend clutter exerts a similar psychological pull. The difference ... comes with the decluttering part: exercise bikes and PlayStations don't get offended when you get rid of them. People do. So we let the clutter accumulate.
I've written before about the idea that electronic connections keep relationships going that, under ordinary circumstances, we would probably slough off. (Keeping in mind, of course, that sometimes I am the person who someone sloughs off.)
That said, I do have certain rules when I "friend" someone:
- On Twitter, it hardly matters. I have few friends or acquaintances who have Twitter accounts and I hardly ever check my Twitter account. Twitter seems like more of a public noticeboard and at this point in my life and career, there's not much there for me.
- On LinkedIn, I usually only connect if I have worked with the person or have some personal knowledge of their character such that I could vouch for them as a resume reference or could at least write a recommendation for them. Sometimes, though, people think of LinkedIn as Facebook for Grownups, and I resist using it in that way.
- On Facebook, I've slowed my friending. I check FB every other day or so, and have friended neighbors, classmates, etc., but I rarely reach out anymore. Facebook, again, was something I used heavily in school but not so much these days. I don't post any pictures or much in the way of personal information, anymore. I tend to post links to news or web sites of interest. I unfriended one person whose comments on my posts annoyed me to the point that I said, "I don't need this grief."
Were I to start a business on the side, I'd re-examine my relationship with these services. But for now, this is a picture of how I manage my online relationships.
I don't unfriend or unfollow many people because I believe that I'm careful about who I let in to my life. I try to keep a certain number of people who I can stay in touch with fairly regularly and whose company I would enjoy. I try to have lunch or a meal or a coffee with local friends fairly regularly; it's important to me that I see my local friends face to face. I don't put such things on a calendar or anything; the prompt for these get-togethers is usually, "Hm, haven't heard from X in a while. Wonder how they're doing?"
I send distant friends birthday cards and letters a couple of times a year, sometimes longish emails, rarely longish phone calls. I and most of my friends are at stages in our lives where we're superbusy with families, careers, etc. and so staying in touch takes conscious effort. We all know this, so once-in-a-while updates are OK with me.
I can't remember where I got this quote, but I remember saying it at my 50th birthday party: "Whoever dies with the most friends, wins." I said it to a roomful of friends on a warm September night who chose to spend their Saturday evening celebrating with me and it was one of the happiest moments of my adult life.