Sometime last week, I cracked the 1000-friend barrier on Facebook. There were no celebrations.
One thousand friends is an arbitrary number. But it also reflects the fact that friends on Facebook aren’t necessarily friends in reality, and a large friend count isn’t connected to personal fulfillment. In fact, the disconnect between Facebook and friendship is a popular metaphor for life in the Internet age. We have all this technology but all we’ve done with it is diminish the friendships we used to have.
Panic is a common response. “The age of loneliness is killing us,” The Guardian declared. In reality, while the way we live our lives has changed, friendship is fundamentally the same. We just feel that things are different.
There is some truth to our fears. From the busy streets of New York to the Let’s Get Physical party at Sigma Chi, the more people you see, the less time you seem to have for any of them. My family spent eight years living in the same apartment building and became friends with maybe five people in it. And today, Facebook is the largest gathering in the world. It has 1.5 billion active users. These people don’t know each other; most of them don’t talk to each other; in general, they don’t know that the others exist.
We certainly meet 1000 people by the time we hit age 21. In fact, on Facebook, we accumulate friends in the same way that our parents must have accumulated business cards. But while we have often had interesting conversations with these friends, most of them simply drop off our radar. We don’t have the time to stay close to all the people we meet and were once close to. We’ve never been able to do that. In fact, as “30 Rock” points out, sometimes we don’t even want to. “We were forced to be friends because of work,” Liz Lemon explains to Tracy. “And we’re probably not gonna hang out after this, all right? You’ll say that you’re gonna invite me to your house, and it’s never gonna happen. And I’ll see on TV that it’s your birthday, and I’ll forget to call.”
1000 is such a strange number for us because our ever-growing friend list is ultimately a constant reminder of the people we used to know, part of a process of natural selection that we always prefer to forget. Facebook makes us feel unfulfilled because it refuses to allow us to forget, and because of its seemingly limitless potential, makes us feel as though we’re doing something wrong. Why don’t our thousand friends translate into a thousand meaningful relationships? But we’re not doing something wrong. We might have a thousand acquaintances at this stage in our lives. But in no period of human history has it ever been standard to have a thousand friends.
Facebook cannot change that fact, although it would like us to think otherwise. Relationships are not a product of technology but of time – the shared experiences that unite us. “Had we but world enough, and time…” Andrew Marvell mused four centuries ago. In the 21st century we have the world at our fingertips, but while technology can make that world go faster, Facebook cannot make time stand still.
Loneliness is relative, and as long as Facebook raises our expectations of what a social life should be, we will feel sad, cheated, perhaps even alone. “As with the city itself, the promise of the internet is contact,” Olivia Laing wrote. “But proximity, as city dwellers know, does not necessarily mean intimacy…Loneliness can be most acute in a crowd.” Nevertheless, while technology plays with our perspectives, it doesn’t mean that our lives are worth any less. And while Facebook can never substitute for a face-to-face conversation, even a shadow of a real relationship is better than nothing at all.
Considering that Facebook by its very nature lets us down, is it necessarily a good thing? As it turns out, yes. Sure, the age of social media has not been what we had expected. Yet Facebook has become part of what we consider friendship to be.
The internet has given us a new set of tools, but they’re used to further goals we have always had – to find companionship and community even though the immediate causes of our friendships are gone. Yes, our Facebook friend lists are a constant reminder of a goal we cannot achieve. But even if we only keep in regular contact with 100 friends, Facebook still enables us to feel some connection with the rest. That sense of community is valuable. Individual relationships may fall away, but the feeling of belonging is something we’ll always need.
We like to say that today’s youth are distant, disconnected, unfulfilled. But because of social media, we really are more connected than we ever have been. Back in the day, what did we do when we moved? We spent time on the phone, we texted – but what about before texting was a thing? What about before the telephone was invented? Odds are we didn’t talk that much. And so relationships deteriorate and eventually collapse. I’ve moved three times in my life: twice before Facebook, and once after Facebook. The one with Facebook has been the better one.
As we prepare to leave Stanford and to see the new worlds that life has to offer, we should always remember that Commencement is not the end. We’ll make new friends, live in different places and find new experiences and dreams to define us. Some of the past will necessarily fade away. Yet the relationships we used to have are part of us. If technology has allowed us to preserve some of these commonalities, then it is something to be dearly praised. After all, this is the first time in human history that we have ever been able to even hope for 1000 friends.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.