Guest Blog: Choosing Friends Wisely in a New Age

Amie Martin, a friend from graduate school, recently shared with me a thoughtful and insightful piece she wrote about the role social media “friendships” have in our increasingly busy lives. (Ironically, she shared it with me via Facebook.) And while I think we can all agree that social media relationships have their place, they also have their limits. I’ve always thought of it as the difference between looking at a picture of  a baby, and snuggling a baby in your arms. Sometimes you have to make do with a picture; and sometimes a picture is all you need. After all, one cannot go around snuggling all the babies one sees. But a picture is not the real thing. At best, it’s a reflection, a facsimile. So in an age where we are so very, very accessible, the question becomes how do we manage our “friendships” while still holding onto our “sanity.”

Obviously, everyone has their own opinion on the matter. Read Amie Martin’s and let me know what you think in the comments section. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

-The Narcissist.

I Will Not Play With You! –  Choosing Friends Wisely in a New Age

By Amie J. Martin

“I’m not gonna play with you anymore!”  These words are fairly commonplace for my two-year-old daughter, when she feels personally affronted in any way, for any reason, by any one.  This isn’t just true for her, either.  Playgrounds everywhere are riddled with similar moments of unbridled, spirit-filled honesty, their little utterers armed with a delicate sensitivity to whether or not others are playing fair and making them happy.  Isn’t it interesting?  When children feel others’ behavior doesn’t line up with the construct of their world, they quickly and fairly painlessly ditch the unaligned others.  They just quit playing with them.  Sometimes, the event is marked by a punctuating, little jog in the opposite direction of the offender.  (To be fair, my daughter doesn’t ditch her brother or sister or me or her father – the most common targets of her threats – permanently, but that may not be by choice.  We feed her and supply her with replacement princess dresses.)  And, though I’m sure I’m probably not supposed to, there’s a part of me that literally zings with adoration every time she looks at me with those saucer, blue eyes, just after she tells me she has no plans to play with me anymore, and before she proclaims, “I’m so just-appointed!”  Why?  Because.

She gets it.

Friendship – the new definition.

That’s right.  When others’ values or actions don’t jive with hers, she has the instinct – and more importantly, the confidence – to flee.  Why then, have I (nearly four decades her senior in years which are supposed to bring with them a little wisdom), spent more hours of my life than I care to admit sucked into the veritable vortex that is the social networking giant… Facebook?  But, more than that (because I understand that connecting with people is, in fact, good for us in many ways), what exactly have I spent my time doing on Facebook?  I know I’ve clicked “like” about a thousandteen times, and I know I make the occasional, heartfelt comment about how cute someone’s darling babies are, or how uber-mod and awesome their latest family photograph is, but is this what I’ve spent the majority of that time doing?

No.  I’ve spent the outright majority of my time on Facebook wading through posts – some from people I can barely remember, but for the fact that they were ‘really nice in Science class in 8th grade’ – which didn’t serve to uplift, challenge or fortify me or my family in any way whatsoever.  These posts also didn’t serve the purpose of “keeping me in the loop” about the Facebook Friends’ families and lives, because they’re loops I didn’t remain in for a reason, a process overseen by the wonderful ways of the universe.  The natural order of things.  We don’t stay friends with everyone we ever knew for a reason.  We are supposed to move on from some things.  Some circumstances.  And yes… even some friends.

What does it hurt?

So what?… you may ask.  Who cares if we open doors back open because of technology that have long been closed because of – well – nature?  Social research for decades has taught us that connecting with others is dynamic to the human spirit, that connecting with others is good for us, right?  Sure.  But what research has left out of the equation almost entirely (because it didn’t know to put a phenomenon like social networking into the equation) is the quantity and quality of the connections we make, and the dramatic impact those two factors can have on our lives.

A recent, personal event caused my inner geek to get really stirred up about these things.  For better or worse, as is usually the case when it happens, I was catapulted fairly abruptly into a mode of reflection that – in this case as in most like it – commanded action.

Facebook drama.

So here’s what happened:  After receiving numerous invitations by Facebook “friends” to join an online gambling site (if you’ve somehow managed to dodge these types of bullets, they come multiple times daily, in the form of Facebook notifications), I scratched out a public post that said – in a nutshell – “Polite, pretty please:  don’t send me these.”  The post’s intended audience was anyone who had, and frankly – ever would – plan to send me the invitation.  This because – as with any aggressive marketing ploy for things seeking to prey on addictive personalities, and which depend on people to join – the notifications are unrelenting and unapologetic.  Frankly, there came a point where I had just had enough.  I received my final “Lucky Slots” invitation on the wrong day, perhaps.

Fast forward.

After sending the please-cease-and-desist post, I quickly received a return “Comment” from one of the inviters, a guy I hadn’t seen in roughly twenty years.  It was a person who had, unfortunately, drifted far from his intended path by his own account, ended up in prison, gotten out more recently, and – by all Facebook appearances – seemed to be trying to start over.  This “old friend” proceeded to call me names, justify his gambling actions, talk about his psychiatric issues, tell him I made him feel small, and apologize, all in a burst of successive and very public Facebook posts.  (This in addition to a couple of private messages I received from the same person).  I was shocked.  I didn’t know whether to be more embarrassed for him, because he came across like a lunatic, or for me, because I had somehow, at some point, decided I would include him in my (very loosely defined) virtual “friend” community.

But alas.  I’m a troubleshooter if I’m anything.  It’s a curse.  I began to frantically trace back the process that led up to this ridiculous, time-consuming, virtual encounter.  I reluctantly admit that I had offered a few words back.  Also, friends (seeing the train wrecking before them) did what unsuspecting passersby do in these situations.  They gawked, commented, etc.  Suddenly –  try though I might to snuff hints of it out immediately  – POW!  I was somehow smack-dab in the middle of a microburst of drama, Facebook style.  And upon reflection, it wasn’t the first time I found myself flailing awkwardly in the virtual world.  I remembered a time when I thought, based on a very cryptic Facebook post, that a friend from junior high may be taking her life.  I contacted her immediately in a private message, but didn’t hear back.  She didn’t hurt herself, and I later determined she was reaching out in an extremely desperate manner for attention.  This wasn’t the only time she’d sent a strange, dark and uncomfortable Facebook post, either.  My friend, whom I’d remembered as one of the perkiest, happiest thirteen-year-olds on the planet, was rather known for these types of status reports.  In a bad, socially-networked-life-flashing-before-my-eyes type sequence, other remarkable Facebook moments started to flood me, like:  slews of hateful, politically-inspired “scare” missives, awkwardly-personal reflections about break-ups and make-ups involving people I barely knew or didn’t know at all, passive-aggressive barbs that didn’t make any sense to ninety-nine percent of feed-readers, and the list could go on for miles here.  I was reflecting on a pile of things that just didn’t feel right.  Things that felt “ick” in a way I couldn’t pinpoint.  After all this reflection, I couldn’t get into the idea of remaining a voyeur just for voyeurism’s sake, when I didn’t care meaningfully about so many of these “Friends” and knew very well they didn’t care meaningfully about me, either.  I spent the next few hours trying to be irritated by the poor guy who kick-started this conundrum I felt stuck in, but realized, ultimately:

This was all my own doing.

A game without rules.

It was me, myself and I, alone, who agreed to that guy’s “Friend” request – along with a whole host of other ones that fit into a similar category of “I-knew-you-once-or-at-least-could-recite-your-first-and-last-name-so-we-MUST-network-on-Facebook-a-million-years-later-to-share-intimate-details-of-our-lives.” I reluctantly “accepted” most of these requests in the first place.  Had I listened to that little whisper of reluctance, had I employed even a skoshe of that confident discernment toddlers employ every day of their lives, I wouldn’t have had to spend any time at all on Facebook silliness the day I was insulted by the pseudo-friend (or any other day, for that matter).

The most absurd part, in that hindsight sort of way:  I thought I was gatekeeping this list over the years in a discerning manner.  I remember telling my husband early in my tenure as a Facebooker, “I am really picky about my Facebook Friend list.”  My smuggish proclamation makes us both snicker now.  Picky how?   Deciding to be “friends” with a really nice person I hadn’t seen or talked to in twenty years, but not deciding to be “friends” with someone who had stalked me at some point or whose face and name I couldn’t place was… discerning?

Taking inspiration from my two-year-old, I had one of only a few, true epiphanies in my lifetime that day.  I realized that no one knows the “correct” way to “socially network.”  What does it even mean to socially network?  Is it to – say – keep in touch with people and families you really care about and who care about you?  But… I already did that.  There is no one – not one, single person – who yet knows the potential power of Facebook or other social networking hubs.  It’s too new a phenomenon.  No one.  Not psychologists, psychiatrists, social researchers, really cool and smart people, no one.  Not even Mark Zuckerberg, whose voice had barely changed when he birthed the beast from a dark corner in his Harvard dorm room at the conspicuously unseasoned age of eighteen, understands how big and whirly this creature – this social networking giant – is.  I am reminded of a movie from my childhood, Honey I Blew up the Kid, in which the family baby becomes a real-life giant.  Though innocent in its own right, the giant (not to mention really cute) baby in the movie destroyed something with every move it made, because it didn’t know any better.  It did what babies do.  Move.  The giant baby, by the way, was created by its dad (who – at the time – had really good intentions).

This bleeding-edge, social networking paradigm is similar.  It’s a machine without rules.  It’s one without instructions, spare parts or a customer service line to call when things go wrong that can’t be fixed by a string of ones or zeros.  And ultimately, the minutes, which add up to hours, which eventually add up to days, that we give to people and things whom we don’t really care about and who don’t care about us – well – you can’t get them back with a refund.  Don’t you wish, at times, you could?

Social networking gone wrong.

I am well aware that not everyone, like me, is bothered all that much by a lot of wasted time and a little mutual-voyeurism.  It’s the more dramatic examples of going full-on into the social networking game willy-nilly, with no personal guidelines established, that may cause us to pause.

Research resoundingly cites that today, approximately one out of every five divorces are the result of social networking.  Mark Keenan, Managing Director of Divorce-Online, comments, “I had heard from my staff that there were a lot of people saying they had found out things about their partners on Facebook.  I decided to see how prevalent it was.  I was really surprised to see twenty percent of all petitions contained references to Facebook.”

How is the giant leap from “friending” old acquaintances to divorcing accomplished?  Whether you’re a “cheater type” or not, anyone who has harmlessly friended an old flame on a social networking site can probably understand how easily one could land on a slippery slope that begins as innocent-enough “catch up.”  Fill in the gaps.  One in five.  We’re human.  On our strongest day, we’re weak.  On our weakest day… we are more vulnerable to becoming some type of statistic.  Don’t think it could happen to you or your spouse?  Neither did the one in five.

Aside from opening your marriage or relationship up to betrayal and other vulnerabilities, there are other ill effects of the social networking phenomenon that make divorce seem like a giggly day at an ice-cream factory; namely, children who have died while in the care of parents glued to their “news feed,” people being stalked and killed, and more.  This all for a lot of people “accepted” like a glob of friendship pins in elementary school – as something to quickly add to the array, without much overall thought about it.

Writing one’s own rules.

I’d be a hypocrite to suggest social networking doesn’t have its place, or to suggest there aren’t aspects of Facebook I really like.  On the flip side of the bad experiences, I’ve reconnected with some extremely quality, old friends whom I felt guilty for having lost touch with in the first place (because they did fortify my life in some way).  I’ve also been inspired, networked for answers to technical problems, and more. There have been some “plusses” in the heap, for sure.

Having said that:  I, like most people, I’d guess, went into what I now call “the Facebook signing” almost without thought, and definitely without self-imposed guidelines.  A few years later, after the types of experiences and countless empty hours I describe – sparked by the mildly-abusive comments of a “Facebook Friend” on my timeline – I decided to take control of the made-up concept of social networking in my own life.

And once I decided it, there was no going back.  I made up my mind to kick some butt and delete some names.  Armed with a little glass of wine and a lot of inspiration, I sat down with my iPhone one evening and began the clean-up process.  At the end of a short session of “Facebook Friend” cutting, I had removed one hundred twenty-four friends from my “Facebook Friend” list.  I was confronted with some of the exact same feelings that led to the big, hodge-podgy list in the first place:  a ridiculous sense of guilt about hurting someone’s feelings, since many of these “Friends” hadn’t done anything malicious whatsoever.  This time, however…

I got over it.

Nike said it best.

I’m not a feeling-less monster.  For better and worse, my “Facebook Friend” list had been almost four years in the making, and this group felt almost like a big, virtual (albeit dysfunctional) family.  No, the process wasn’t effortless, initially.  I had to remind myself several times, “Just do it.”  And then I did it.  I did a whole lot of “unfriending.”  And yes, I cut some perfectly nice people from my friend list.  People I may have even genuinely been real-life friends with at some point in my life, but who no longer represented anything value-added to the complex construct that is a person’s life.  People who, in several years for example, had never “liked” anything I’d offered, or who’d never offered anything I’d “liked” or been impressed, moved, or inspired by while making my way through the news feed.  It may sound cold, but sometimes you have to be practical about things. In a way, I feel like I did these friends-but-not-really a little favor.  They didn’t need their feed to be cluttered with my Facebook musings, either, because they didn’t care.  I even have the genuine hope that those with whom I missed the mark completely, people who “made the cut” on my end but who don’t feel the same, will eventually act in kind and “Unfriend” me.

While I had my sleeves rolled up, in addition to narrowing my “Facebook Friend” list to people I admire, care about, or from whom I derive some sort of inspiration, I wrote, for myself, a few additional instructions.

Deciding its role.

Social networking can play a valuable role in individual lives. For me, after long days of work, followed by comparatively short-but-very-intense evenings playing chase, helping build Lego spaceships and wiping squished peas from the perfectly-buoyant face of my baby, a little connecting with a lot of amazing and inspiring adults is a welcome experience.  For me, that’s the role social networking plays – a recreational, little getaway in my price range.  It’s also a really practical format to help me keep up in a more personal, real-time sort of way with people I really care about.  For some, it might be to network for business or to share hobbies, recipes, parenting tips, etc.  It could be that social networking’s role in individuals’ lives is a mix of these things.  The key is in deciding – proactively – what that role is, then establishing some guidelines accordingly.

Since the Great Facebook-Defriending of 2012, I devote a daily, pre-established thirty minutes (or less) to the process that is “social networking.”  A few minutes of this is when I wake up in the morning, with a cup of coffee, before the squeaks of my little house-creatures officially launch my day-starting process. Another small chunk is at night, after they go to bed – as a method of winding down grown-up style.  Now, though, not only does my “quick scroll” through my news feed go very quickly, the thirty minutes devoted to “socially networking” as I’ve newly defined it is a relaxed and appreciable experience. I am genuinely interested in almost everything in my Facebook news feed, because I’m genuinely interested in the people who contribute to it.

Better and worse.

I am in no way suggesting others should read and strictly follow my own rule book when it comes to social networking.  Rather, I encourage every person out there who participates in social networking to just take a miniscule percentage of the time you spend “feeding” at your online hub of choice to think about it.  Decide what – exactly – it means for you.  For your families.  Decide a purpose for the social networking process in your own life, and write your own instruction booklet.

A wise, old soul who recently retired at my “day job,” once had a coach whose words he passed onto me on his last day at work.  The words have played in an almost-haunting loop in my mind lately:  “You either get better or you get worse, but you never stay the same.”  I agree with this to my very core.  The betterness, along with the worseness that happens to us all – well – it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen against our will or somehow independent of the millions of little and big choices we make in a given day.  Every, single thing we do, every choice we make, every influence we allow into our daily lives, contributes to the cause in one direction or another.  All of it – to include the “Friends” we choose – piles up to make us better

or to make us worse.

When my husband and I were about to marry, we attended an engaged-couples retreat.  They drove home a similar point by relating that everything we do is either “life giving” or “life draining.”  What a task it would have been to wade through my not-well-screened-after-all “Facebook Friend” feed and try to decide – at the end of each day – if my life had been more drained or more fortified.  It could have gone either way most of the time.

Child genius.

If, like my beautifully-confident, shrewdly-discerning two-year-old, I’d have refused to play with friends (in the social-networking sense) whom I knew, deep down, weren’t friends at all, and never would be, I’d have been a lot better off.  I also wouldn’t have lost hundreds of hours to weeding through virtual muck, leading up to the hour I finally conjured the courage to both admit that fact and then act on it.  I’d be as wise as toddlers are, before the “growing-up” part complicates even the simplest of things.

Upon a little reflection, I haven’t felt as “grown-up” in a long time as I did when I modeled my behavior after my toddler in deciding who my friends really are, virtually or otherwise.

Learn more about Amie J. Martin.

One Comment on “Guest Blog: Choosing Friends Wisely in a New Age”

  1. Amy says:

    It would be great if Facebook has a fair weather friend button that automatically dropped dome people in 3 months. Perfect for those quick reunions where you want to care about the person and re connect in passing.

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