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Happiness is a friend, even on Facebook

  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
  • Published Monday, Nov. 26, 2012, at 11:03 p.m.

I have 438 friends. On Facebook, that is, which is how I happen to know the exact number. (I also have a handful of pals not yet on Facebook.) My Facebook friends include buddies of many years as well as people I’ve met briefly through work or dimly recall from high school. Friends, in other words, you might once have called “acquaintances.” They even include a few people of the sort formerly known as “total strangers.”

We’re all friends now, sort of. We click “like” on one another’s photos, share one another’s viral videos, post greetings on one another’s birthdays, extend condolences when a loved one dies, exchange opinions on current events, tell jokes and anecdotes. It’s usually fun, often funny and occasionally enlightening.

That’s why I disagree with the familiar complaint that Facebook wrecks in-person relationships by replacing them with impersonal and unfulfilling online interaction. As if machines themselves were communicating rather than real human beings doing the typing and clicking.

Mind you, I don’t dispute all criticisms of the site. It’s hard to argue against charges that Facebook is a time suck and a privacy risk, that people post too much about politics or their children, that many users aren’t the greatest spellers. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

But supplanting real-life relationships? Hardly.

When it comes to promoting friendship, Facebook could be the greatest invention since the bowling league.

“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” the Atlantic Monthly wondered in May. Apparently it’s not, judging by the article’s failure to support the claim. But author Stephen Marche tries really hard to argue otherwise.

“We live in an accelerating contradiction: The more connected we become, the lonelier we are,” Marche writes. “We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.”

Marche summons statistics and research showing that Americans are lonely, that Facebook is huge, that both phenomena exist simultaneously. But there’s no evidence that one causes the other, no proof that if people are lonely it’s Facebook’s fault. Marche’s own sources point out that it’s equally likely that Facebook can serve as a handy tool for enhancing social life.

“So if social media let you organize a game of football among your friends, that’s healthy,” Marche interprets. “If you turn to social media instead of playing football, however, that’s unhealthy.”

True. But if you can’t play football with your brother because he lives across the country, or because you broke your leg, you might welcome the chance to discuss the sport on Facebook rather than sit there watching a game on TV by yourself.

But Facebook doesn’t just fill in for unavailable friends, it brings together new ones.

Thanks to social media, I know dozens of people I otherwise wouldn’t. People in other parts of the country and the world. A network of professional contacts. Former classmates, neighbors and co-workers I’d been out of touch with for years before Facebook. Now I can reach these people to arrange coffee dates, request restaurant recommendations, exchange career advice.

I tried sorting my Facebook friends into those I know from “real life” versus those I’ve met online. But they aren’t, I discovered, easy to categorize. I met J——— in person, but was introduced by a friend who met him online. And I see that friend often now, after having lost touch for 20 years. Then there’s B———, a former colleague I’d rarely spoken to when we worked in the same building, now a frequent online sharer.

Facebook is where I met the woman who organized my writers’ group, and another set of local writers who collaborated on a series of speaking panels. When a former employer laid off hundreds of workers, Facebook offered a place to vent and share job leads. Through Facebook, L———, whom I met while chatting in a Macy’s dressing room and then friended, gave me the name of a good ice-dam-removal guy.

It gets complicated, like making Thanksgiving arrangements for a family with a sprawling cast of ex-spouses and half siblings. But ultimately Facebook, like the holiday, is worth it.

Facebook has no more destroyed friendship than the telephone did. Friendship has been around for a lot of years and simply isn’t that easy to wipe out. When the next communication breakthrough comes along — holographic images? Chips embedded in our brains? — friends are likely to survive.

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