How should I respond to a “Friend Request” on Facebook from a being who does not show his face and instead requires me to trust a person who goes by the identity of a sunset or a loaf of bread? Or to one whose profile is locked?
It was not long ago when friendship was about the bond that formed through years of being with each other. People you did not consider as friends did not mind then; they could be your kin, and, by blood, related or forced to be related to you and with you. Or, they would be acquaintance, an individual given a semblance of significance in your life but whose link to your daily life remained on a given distance. Both of you knew and saw the social limit and that was fine.You were acquainted—that’s all.
My definition of friendship—don’t get me wrong—is not limited by time and gravity of contact. There could be an element of serendipity or even synchronicity in how the universe whirls around you. Perhaps, Anais Nin’s words can guide us: “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
Given all the element of accident and chance encounter gleaned in the quote of Nin, the writer-diarist, it still impresses us how friendship could generate a world, or create a space where two individuals meet, even collide in the process of producing a spark, which could be affectively violent. Imagine a person whose identity your own identity will swore by; regard this human being whose existence now lives around your life. That is friendship.
Go back to online engagement. Count the friends there within the ether. Be confounded when the technology commands you not to invite any more friends because there is no more seat for them, no more room where they can share virtual victories with you, no bed for your agreed-upon periodic sensualities. Maybe a command is not the right word; maybe, default is the proper locution for what eventually happens in the Internet.
The world we have created online is not our own. The complication is a trait in the guarantee, which never prepares us for the price we have to pay for the ease with which we collect people. The technologies never gave us a pledge. We set the boundaries and we conceive of a field where our idea of friendship is to thrive. The possibilities are beyond imagination. What did Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine say about possibilities in that blustering film, Lion in Winter? Here is her magnificent rant: “For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little; that’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world. [italic mine].”
Even that quote is a bit too much, for while from friendships take off possibilities, friendship by itself should not crave for love and friends do not dream of changing the world. Those two elements—love and ambition to change the world—are politics and theology.
Then, perhaps, I am being incomplete to ascribe to social media any extra-human qualities. Could the Internet be extrasomatic, a term that is defined by Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary as “outside or unrelated to the body”?
Andrew Hagan, in his foreword to the book, The Secret Life. Three True Stories, writes: “We were addicted to the ailments of the web long before we understood how the technology would change our lives.” For Hagan, whose one story introduces us to the “ghosting” in the life of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, the web gave us “the tools of fiction-making to everybody equally, so long as they had access to a computer and a willingness to swim into the Internet’s deep well of otherness.”
The web, Hagan says, is “a marketplace of selfhood,” an idea that echoes in the post-modern way the sociologist Erving Goffman’s presentation of self in everyday life. While Goffman is using dramaturgy to articulate how we are a composite of performances, each performance geared to creating a positive view of ourselves, in the new technological regime, each day we sell the self in an agora seemingly devoid of boundaries and yet limited by “something” not within our consciousness.
Hagan talks of invented names on Facebook, “many of them clearly living another life….”
The writer who was called by New York Times as “the best essayist of his generation,” tells us how encryption “has made the average user a ghost—an alias, a simulacrum, a reflection.”
Then it is I who (and you who share with me the unease) demand much of friendship online, that maybe I should be happy to deal with a man or a woman whose face has been grafted to a profile, which is a rose, or a full garden in bloom, or of human beings who will share with me their pains and joys, their depression and ailments, by way of their dead pet or a lighted candle perpetual amidst the blighted darkness. And maybe, just maybe, there is also truth in friendship, a deadly excitement, part-fiction, part-magic, that anytime can be snuffed out by a “block,” altered by a “snooze,” or killed by an “unfollow.”