Although I have friends in the town where I live, I spend more of my free time online, socializing with people, many of whom I haven’t met in person. This is the new normal, where we can morph into hunky superheroes or meet and “marry” our soul mate and start a Second Life that’s much more interesting than the first one. It’s possible to spend too much time online,but most of us know when to sit back and look up…most of us.
“I need to get out more”
Thanks to social networking, the word “friend” has acquired a new fluidity. What is a friend anyway? Someone whose interests you share? With whom you can swap stories or exchange confidences? Someone who’ll lend you money, take you to the airport, water your plants or show up at your funeral? At some point, the only people we can count on for those sorts of things are either family or people we pay, and the latter group is often more reliable.
Online friendship is relatively easy: I like you; your sensibility or sensitivity or sense of humor; you seem like “good” people; we have friends in common—boom! You’re my friend. Many social networking sites don’t even require that you be acquainted with someone you embrace as a comrade. I have “friended” the comedian Lewis Black and the journalist Charles Blow. Of course, that the creepy guy who used to follow me home in high school can ask to “friend” me, but I can always virtually run in the other direction via the “ignore” button.
Just as I get used to this loosey-goosey, all-inclusive buddy system, along comes Google+ to throw all my choices into question.
Google + is a new social networking site who some people think (and others hope) will knock Facebook back on its heels. Thanks to a few tech-forward friends, I’ve been invited to poke around on the site. There are many cool-looking features I’ve yet to try, but Google’s big selling point is that it solves the “too much information seen by too many people” problem by creating a classification system. This theoretically allows you to organize your networking by organizing your network; sorting out friends from family (some of whom might or might not be considered friends, but never your mother or your crazy brother) and from acquaintances, people you don’t really know except through someone else. Then there are people you’re “following” (a nod to Twitter): people you only wish you had as friends who in truth don’t know you from Adam. You can customize your circles: you might have a professional circle (very LinkedIn), or a common interests circle ( like a bunch of, say, writers).
Circles are supposed to be good. They represent strength, unity, connection, community; commonality, unbroken and everlasting. Yet the very act of separating everyone out is giving me agita.
I get that someone might want to share professional or technical information only with people she thinks might be interested. But as far as privacy is concerned, let’s not fool ourselves: if it’s on the ‘Net, it’s absolutely, irretrievably public. Maybe not instantly but eventually. Forget circles or squares or compartments or e-mails marked “private” or password-protected sites. If there’s anything you don’t want anyone to know—ever—your best course of action is not to type it out—ever.
“Hell really is other people.”
The truth is, I don’t want Google or anyone else to help me sort out my relationships. I feel I’ve earned the right to be vague or uncertain. At the same time, my maturity doesn’t protect me from re-experiencing those painful high school-era feelings about belonging. It’s bad enough to invite someone to “friend” you and get ignored. On Google+, you can add someone to your friends’ circle and learn they’ve tagged you as a mere acquaintance or worse: they haven’t included you in any of their circles. That’s harsh. And must I be denied the thrill of claiming Lewis Black as one of my peeps?
Maybe I’m just not seeing the big picture; Google+, please, help me out. Why can’t we all be just friends? Even if we’re not in real life.