Warthen: Family, friends and Facebook

Editorial Page EditorJanuary 4, 2009 

I REALIZED that the whole thing was getting out of hand when my wife started asking me why I didn’t want to be her “friend.”

Not to get into personal matters too deeply, I had always sort of thought my wife was, is and will be my friend — my best friend, the one with whom I shared all, ’til death do us part.

After 34 years of marriage, five kids and now three grandchildren in common, after all of which we are still living in the same house and on speaking terms, you’d think the whole “friendship” thing would have been established to everyone’s satisfaction long ago.

But not in the age of Facebook.

Call me a mossback, but I admit it: I don’t get Facebook. It’s not that I ain’t hep! Blogging is second nature to me. Almost everything else about the Internet, from Google to e-commerce, I do as though I’ve always done them. I’ve essentially been instant-messaging since the early ’80s.

But Facebook foxes me. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand why information flows the way it does on that site or is structured the way it is; I have trouble obtaining the simplest information from it. I can’t get a footing in all those little snatches of messages in various type sizes with little pictures and all; as soon as I step into my Home page, I slip and fall as though I’d stepped into a roomful of marbles, and my attention slides right off the screen. I need gray, continuous type, one clearly expressed thought following logically upon another, to hold my consciousness — which is why the two papers I’m most likely to read other than my own are The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

But most of all, I don’t get the whole “friends” concept. Mind you, I’m not the world’s most sociable guy. There’s family. There’s co-workers. There’s sources. There are nice people I see at church or at Rotary. But friends? Not so much. We’re not encouraged to have “friends” in my business. I’ve been the recipient of disapproving remarks from colleagues on the rare occasions I’ve called someone a “friend” in a column. It’s considered unprofessional.

But ever since I set up a Facebook account (I did it when my youngest daughter’s boyfriend died last year, and I’d heard his sister had set up a page where a lot of people had said nice things about him), I’ve had this steady trickle of e-mails saying:

(Name) added you as a friend on Facebook. We need to confirm that you know (name) in order for you to be friends on Facebook.

To confirm this friend request, follow the link below:

Sometimes these are people I know, usually professionally. I started out confirming them, just to keep open the lines of communication — but I’ve started to hold back. Some are people whose names are only vaguely familiar, although I generally recognize them when I go to their pages. Then I have a dilemma — should I snub this person who has asked me to be his or her “friend,” or potentially compromise myself by declaring to the world that this person is a “friend”? (This category includes a lot of people, usually younger ones, who work in politics professionally.)

Yeah, I get it that the site is using the word “friend” to describe a range of relationships much broader than the original meaning, but I’m still not sure what to do, because I still place value upon the word.

Finally, some are members of my immediate family. First, there were my own children. I approve those, of course, although “friend” seems an absurdly inadequate way to define the relationship. Then my wife signed up. A few days later, she said our youngest had expressed dismay that her mother had not yet named her as a “friend”! Well, we smiled over this. How silly. She knows how much we love her.

Next thing I knew, my wife was asking how much longer I was going to go without confirming that she was my friend. OK, OK, I took care of that. I now see that all but one of my children are my friends on “Facebook,” but I am not going to bug the one holdout about it, because that’s his business. (To the extent that anyone has personal business in a Facebook world. I don’t want to give away one of the reasons why I think my wife likes the site, but kids will post stuff on their Facebook site they would never tell their parents directly, which to me remains inexplicable.)

It’s probably good to have my wife on there, though, on account of the total strangers asking me to be their “friends.” The very first person who asked to be my “friend” was an attractive lady (which I knew from the glamour shot) who lives in Germany and is married. I “confirmed” the friendship just so I could send her a message asking, as delicately as I could, whether we were acquainted. She said we were not. OK. Whatever.

That was over a year ago, and I still don’t understand what’s going on. But I am feeling the pull of this complicated web of relationships, and it is not always pleasant. At first, it’s nice to make contact with a friend — a friend in the old sense — you haven’t seen in 20 years, and that leads to “friend” requests from people who were close to both of you back then, and on and on. But as the thing spreads in a viral manner — which seems to be the point — it all becomes rather cumbersome.

So I don’t get Facebook. I’m told that Barack Obama does, though, which is good to know. I read a piece in Foreign Affairs last week (see how hopeless I am?) that in this century, the world’s most dominant power will be the one with the most “connectedness,” and “the United States has a clear and sustainable edge” in that department.

So I’m glad to know that somebody gets it. But I don’t.

For a site that makes sense to me, please go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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