I recently had a long conversation with a dear friend about the nature of friendship on Friday that I feel compelled to write about.
We now live our lives in a very public space, proclaiming our friendships to everyone on websites such as facebook and LinkedIn, and pronounce our beliefs to people on Twitter and blogs. I have been astonished recently about the amount of research going on about the “optimal number of friends” on social networking sites (for those of you who don’t know, 300 appears to be the optimal number). Interestingly, today some of the most agonizing personal decisions about our friendships happen online.
A recent dispatch from the NY times discusses the issues around “unfriending” someone. Apparently you can just hit the delete button, and the “unfriended” doesn’t know that they have been dispatched with until they try to access your profile. Shouldn’t losing a friend be something that is painful? If the relationship had meaning, then its loss should be unpleasant. But if we don’t really know someone, and the development and maintenance of the relationship requires no time or effort, then perhaps there is little value to the friendship.
Which brings me to my conversation with the Skinny Professor. Call me old fashioned, but to me a friend is someone you have met in person. Not because I am uninterested in people I have never met, but because I believe that friendship is as much about what you do as it is about what you say. Friendship is about the effort we put into developing and maintaining that relationship. The Skinny Professor called me because I had posted a facebook status update saying I was stressed. He wanted to be sure that I was okay, and let me know that he was there to help. I have known the Skinny Professor for over 20 years. But it was his personal response, a special effort, not just an email, but a real live phone call that lasted an hour, that made me realize that friendship is about effort, it is about action, it is about empathy, it is about being “in person”.
The virtual world, with all of its wonderful tools and toys (including this blog), just isn’t a perfect substitute for the real, live intimacy of a friend whom you have actually met. Meaningful friendships are hard work. Social networking is a valuable tool, but for me at least, it doesn’t replace the richness of a face to face friendship.