Friend-like Entities

It’s no secret that I’m a fully-fledged, all dues paid up, member of the “uses social networking” club. Good heavens, after all, I have a paid account on LiveJournal, I’m a “pro” on Flickr, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and more recently on Pinterest. I have a Tumblr account I never use; I’m on Google+: you name it; I’ve tried it. But my use of these services varies, and has shifted over time, and the relationships I’ve developed over the years have shifted as well. The other week, when my dog Robinson died, I had 44 comments on my Facebook post about it, 15 on LiveJournal, and more than 250 people at least viewed my WordPress post, although only 4 or 5 left comments. Three people even responded directly to Twitter, even though Twitter is considerably more ephemeral than any of the others. All the comments meant a great deal, and since then, as I have before, I’ve been thinking about the nature of all these online connections.

Susan Orlean, whom I follow on Twitter, once used the term “friend-like entities” to describe her Twitter followers, or the people she interacts with online. To her, I guess I am one of those: I follow her on Twitter, and, via her Twitter links, I read her blog for the New Yorker; I’ve responded to one or two of her posts, but she does not follow me, nor, I imagine, would she care greatly if I were to stop following her. Indeed, I’d be greatly surprised if she knows I exist. I follow several famous authors online if they post things that interest me, but although I suppose I was chuffed when Neil Gaiman “friended” me on GoodReads (oh yes, I’m on that, too), I do not consider him a “friend” any more than I imagine he does any of his thousands (millions?) of followers. Many people, especially real or would-be celebrities, use social networks more as a kind of publicity than as a form of friendship; their posts are mostly outward facing only. Although they have hundreds, even thousands, of followers, they themselves read and respond to only a small number. And it’s those reciprocal relationships that really count, that can be considered more than “friend-like entities.”

I started blogging seven or eight years ago, because I planned to make some of my students do it and thought I should do it too. My first blog was on LiveJournal, and, because I had no clue about “friending” people or attracting attention in any way, absolutely no one read the first several months worth of posts; I might as well have been writing in a private journal. And then someone who was a colleague in the English department at the time, more web-savvy than I, to whom I had mentioned my blog, friended me. And I went and looked at his “friends” and “friended” a couple of them, and then I started searching under my own interests and discovered more people, and then people started finding me through the friend network and things grew from there. Only that first colleague was someone I knew in real life, although later another colleague and now great friend hooked up with me, and a couple of students found me.

Over about the same period of time, I developed a network of contacts of Flickr, in much the same way. Someone made me a contact, greatly to my surprise, and I started following people whose work I liked, and people started following me, and so on. Flickr is a much bigger and mostly considerably less personal network than LiveJournal, although I now have several people that I would consider “real” friends through being contacts there.

The people on LiveJournal are mostly in the nature of what might, in times past, have been “pen friends,” though I could never keep up with letter-writing as I do blogging. The core group tends to be people with whom I have a number of interests in common and who now know quite a bit about me and my life. My writing on LiveJournal is personal, often locked or “friends only”; I don’t really feel comfortable having colleagues or students read my LJ posts without my permission. I have met several of my LJ friends in real life, and almost without exception have bonded instantly with them – after all, we already know eachother well through our writing. There are some people who follow me on LJ that I would not be interested in meeting, but I have no problem with them reading my personal writing perhaps for that very reason: that I am very unlikely to run across them in person. It’s strange that I feel less comfortable with people I know in real life as acquaintances reading my very personal posts than I do having complete strangers read them.

Facebook is another world altogether, in many ways less personal, though I have the widest range of relationships there. Facebook has become a kind of “one stop” network. Among my Facebook friends are some relatives, a few of my closest real-life friends, a lot of LJ friends, including all but one of those I’ve met in real life, quite a few Flickr friends, none of whom I’ve met in real life, several old school friends whom I haven’t seen in years, quite a few ex-students (but no current ones), and a wide range of colleagues from work, including my boss.

So what does all this add up to? Something, I would argue. These are more than just “friend-like entities.” Flickr and LiveJournal gave me a way to connect with the outside world in the tough years when I was caregiving my mother and hardly left home except to go to work. My friends on LiveJournal helped keep me sane then, and helped me through the lonely grieving process after my mum died. Now, even though I have a much richer and more fulfilling “real” life, those LiveJournal and Flickr contacts remain and continue to sustain me. I may have never met Emily or Julie or Francesca or Sherwood or Jeremy or Leslie or Criz or Terry, but I’d like to. It pleases me greatly that ex-students on Facebook pop up to tell me that they think about me when they read something or announce proudly that they’ve published an article. I enjoy sharing teaching ideas and jokes with my colleagues. It meant something to me that forty-four people sent me virtual hugs and sympathy on Facebook when my dog died. It means something to know that someone might notice if I didn’t post for a while, or that someone stops in my office to check that I’m ok because I posted that I was blue one evening. They may be in a virtual space, but these are human connections.

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“Likes” is so Inadequate

Facebook is so strange.

I’m on it because, well, basically I’ve tried everything, and FB does seem to be quite a nice way of keeping up to date with “RL” friends and relatives, or to see another side of some acquaintances from other social networks like Flickr or LJ.

But it is very strange.

For example, I’m always rather disconcerted when someone “likes” it when someone else posts about something bad. You know: I post that one of my dogs died, and so-and-so “likes this.” I mean, I know they don’t like it, they are not pleased about my misfortune; what they really mean is “expressing sympathy” or “I feel for you.” So why can’t we have a range of responses? A drop-down menu with other possibilities like “empathizes” or “sympathizes” or “is sorry” or “is angry”? There isn’t even a “dislike” button, for heaven’s sake.

And don’t get me started on Farmville…