Wednesday, October 31, 2007

are you a meta-friend?

In the Oct. 29 issue of Time magazine, there’s an essay by Joel Stein entitled “You Are Not My Friend.”

It is a piece, written tongue-in-cheek, about how the Internet—in particular, social networking Web sites such as Friendster, Multiply, MySpace, and similar Web sites—are redefining the concepts of friendships and social relationships. It’s a topic that I have been meaning to write about for quite some time but never got around to doing until now. Since I have decided to take a break from anything political today in deference to readers who admonished me to write about something else other than the squabbles of our leaders, I have decided to follow Stein’s lead and write about the ways in which people are navigating the new and tricky pathways of intimacy and interpersonal connections.

Okay. Let’s begin with a confession. I hereby state for the record that I do have a Friendster account. I also have a Multiply account and before that, a Flicker account. When I created these accounts, they seemed like a good idea because most of my friends and students were into it.

There is a limit to how much social isolation one can suffer. When most everyone you care about has taken to announcing the state of his emotional entanglements (single, married, or it’s complicated) at Friendster rather than convening a caucus of shoulders to cry on; when most everyone has taken to sharing embarrassing pictures of your last drunken revelry at Multiply (making them readily available for “grabbing” by anyone), it’s definitely time to get out of the Stone Age and join the current version of a soiree.

And while we are at it, let me go all out and admit that I too have a yahoo messaging account, a yahoo mail account, and a hotmail account. These, on top of various e-mail and yahoo groups that serve as a broker house for all kinds of information; most of which I do not need. I would have taken a gmail account too but I balked at the rather elitist recruitment strategy of requiring a personal endorsement from a current account holder. Why bother when there are other free e-mail services available?

If it accounts for anything, I have drawn the line at getting a Flicker account or accepting invites to Hi5, Facebook, Faceparty, Twitter, or MySpace. I have also, so far, been successful in fending off invitations to check out Web sites that puts one in touch with high school classmates, or online directories of friends, or online dating sites. So far.

Go ahead and snicker all you want; God knows I also ask myself a number of times why I bother with these modern-day aggravations which, like those now obsolete virtual pets, demand attention and takes up so much cyberspace time. Trying to resist the temptation to check out these sites is a major test of one’s resolve and determination. It’s difficult because, darn it, people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies like me just aren’t wired to ignore these things.

You say no one is pointing a gun at my head compelling me to find out who has checked out my friendster account, added a new friend, left a message, posted a new picture, or answered yet another survey that is actually nothing but the current reincarnation of the slum book from our elementary days? I tell you why. Because these sites have built in mechanisms to remind, cajole, wheedle, and nag you into doing so.

Friendship has indeed become so demanding. What Stein calls meta-friends (to differentiate them from the friends we actually know in person) send smiles, rate your pictures, post bulletins and shout-outs, and do many other things that pop up on your e-mail account in the form of reminders or updates as if the fact that someone has given you a virtual hug is a matter of life and death.

I log in to cyberspace with the intent to simply check e-mails. But since computers and multi-tasking have become practically synonymous, I inevitably find myself logging on to Friendster, Multiply, and eventually, Yahoo Messenger as well, purportedly just to while away the time waiting for a file to download.

Before I know it, the minutes extend to an hour as I get lost in the minutiae of my meta-friends’ lives. Browsing leads to chatting. And the hour extends to hours.

When people discover that I have Friendster and Multiply accounts, the reactions vary. There are those who look at me with ill-disguised condescension. These are people who think having meta-friends is juvenile. On the other hand, there are people who think that my having these accounts elevate me to the level of being “cool,” whatever that means.

Friend-based Web sites do offer distinct advantages. Obviously, the opportunity to connect and become part of your friends’—and that of their extended networks of friends—loop comes up on top of the list. Of course, it is embarrassing that one is able to interact with these people on a more regular basis than one does with a sibling or a long-time friend who lives next door. It is a sad reflection of the nature of this new type of social interaction that we now know more about our meta-friends than we actually do our real friends.

But there’s more. The basic component of friend-based Web sites is messaging service. By just clicking on their avatars, one can immediately send a message—or if one so chooses, a simple emotion to convey a smile, a grin, or a hug. No more inputting addresses. In fact, one does not even have to send a message. One can simply update one’s account and the change is announced to all of one’s friends.

One get free reminders when someone’s birthday comes up. This is a major help for people like me who tend to forget even his mom’s birthday. It has also become helpful in tracking the whereabouts of my students (80 percent of my friends in Friendster are former students). Thanks to Friendster, I know exactly where in the world a favorite student from six years ago is at the moment, or who is currently nursing a broken heart, or pining for someone new.

Perhaps because most cellular phones are now equipped with cameras, people can take pictures anytime anywhere and the results of these efforts are easily gleaned in the pictures that they post in their accounts. Some are inspired works of art; others simply reinforce the cliché that there is truly no accounting for taste.

There are downsides to it, of course. Unfortunately, being part of these social networks is probably the cyber version of being in a single’s bar. You get the cyber equivalent of being hit on by complete and total strangers with requests to be added on as a “friend.”

Friend-based Web sites have clearly redefined constructs of social space and privacy. For a while there, I actually balked at the kind and amount of information people share out there. Now I have become immune and tend to look at the unabashed baring of one’s self as simply another kind of advertising.

As Tevye, the lead character in “Fiddle On The Roof” said, “It’s a new world out there, a new world!” Excuse me, I need to return a cyber hug.

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