A few years back, I had the chance to visit with an old friend in California with whom I attended high school. Our wives and we all attended college together, and we were close for about a decade while our now-adult children were young. Over the years, Facebook helped us follow the general trajectories of each other’s careers and family lives. About fifteen years had passed since my family and I had moved away, and the reunion of old friends, brief as it was, reinforced our friendship.
Several years ago, when one of our sons was in high school and had been on Facebook for only a short while, my wife was surprised by the number of “friends” he had on that site—three hundred some, as I recall. She asked him how many were really his friends, and got the usual noncommittal teenager response. Now that he is out of college and gainfully employed, our son’s list of Facebook friends has risen to just about nine hundred. My tally is much smaller, I must confess, and includes many whom I’ve never met.
Such is friendship in the social media age. On Twitter, one has no friends, only “followers”; on LinkedIn, the career networking site, we are likewise friendless, having simply “connections,” a suitably abstract and businesslike term.
Thoughts of some of my Facebook friendships came to mind recently as I read an essay by William Hazlitt. In “The Pleasures of Hating,” Hazlitt talks about the many things we come to hate, especially as we age. “We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.” He continues:
Old friendships are like meats served up repeatedly, cold, comfortless, and distasteful. The stomach turns against them. Either constant intercourse and familiarity breed weariness and contempt; or, if we meet again after an interval of absence, we appear no longer the same. One is too wise, another too foolish for us; and we wonder we did not find this out before. We are disconcerted and kept in a state of continual alarm by the wit of one, or tired to death of the dullness of another.
Perhaps I am a more patient sort than the old crank Hazlitt, but I have not found this to be true, especially with those friends from my high school and college years. Facebook has helped us stay in touch, not so much for bragging (although there is some of that, in a good-natured way) but for recalling happiness in a time of our lives when burdens and responsibilities did not weigh so heavily on us. We also share our current burdens as mature adults, and they feel lighter as a result.