Embracing online networking

"So many friends, so little time.”

I’m late to a lot of things in life, a dinosaur among my peers. I still design and draft my work by hand with a relic once known as a pencil. I have an iPod, but it’s the size of a 1980s cell phone and doesn’t make calls. And my dating life barely began before my mortgage payments. So it’s no surprise that the world of online social networking has eluded me. Actual, physical social networking is something that comes quite naturally to me, and I have a solid group of friends to show for it, but recently I felt the need to experiment, to see what the cool kids were doing. They call it Facebook.

Surely you’ve heard of it. The more mature, aesthetically pleasing, social networking progeny of Myspace. Too old to post pictures of myself at drunken frat parties, and too childless to pay much attention to Dateline exposés, I missed the Myspace zeitgeist, but Facebook has been slower to emerge and more attuned to young professionals.

A brief overview: you, the user, create a profile, providing as little information as your name, birthday, and password. Note of caution: this alone is enough for the now overweight jock that bullied you in high school to send a message wanting to be your “friend.” But you can also upload photos, create and edit albums, share video clips, and generally self-publish life as you experience it.

Friends are the fundamental organizing principle of Facebook. Once you have established a profile you can search for friends by name. Can’t think of any? Not to worry, Facebook will make suggestions from potential networks, including college alumni or your high school marching band. To make friends, simply click “add as friend” under the name or photo of your soon-to-be BFF. Said friend can either “accept” or “ignore” these friendship requests. Only friends can view each other’s full profile, protecting privacy — or at least giving the sense of it.

Undoubtedly the most unnerving aspect of Facebook is the News Feed, the social equivalent of CNN’s tickertape. Essentially anytime you or one of your friends updates something in his or her profile, the action is sent to the News Feed. For example, in creating my profile, I was constantly second-guessing and changing my details. “Interested in: Networking.” Check. “Dating.” Check. “Relationship.” Check.” On second thought: Uncheck. Uncheck. Uncheck. By the time I was done my News Feed might as well have read, “Bryan’s feeling more or less desperate today.”

Likewise, one of the more pervasive News Feeds involves making new friends, all of which are announced to your entire network. Instead of “ignoring” my friend requests, I let them sit idle in my inbox for fear my would-be friend will be immediately sent a note indicating, “Bryan thinks he’s too good for you.” If the message were accurate, it would read, “Bryan would be happy to accept your friendship if you would also be willing to step out of your insular social circle and talk to him in public.” There is also the final, most dreaded News Feed line: “[Your ex] and [your current] are now friends.”

Is this the new reality for defining community? With opportunity for social landmines more pervasive in this virtual social circle than in real — I’m sorry, physical — relationships, why bother? Perhaps it’s a subtle generational difference between X and Y, those of us that grew up without an e-mail address versus those that could text before they could talk. Without exception, my friends are people that I have met and established relationships with over a period of time, some more immediate than others, but always involving, at the very least, an actual conversation. They support, humor, and encourage me. They define my family and my community. I’m too new to Facebook to think I can’t make “friends” online, and perhaps I’m being too literal by thinking others are, but I doubt I can create the bonds I have formed in my pre-Facebook life over a game of Scrabulous!

Bryan Anderson lives Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects on East Hennepin.