It isn’t every day that a Facebook friend request doubles as a sign of the end times, but that’s what happened several weeks ago when my decision to “friend” a wedding reception dance partner put my Facebook friend count at exactly 666.
I didn’t honestly think it meant anything, but then again, with Harold Camping recalibrating his Armageddon arithmetic and with 2012 only six months away, I didn’t want to press my luck. Surely it couldn’t hurt to shed a few friends and get myself down to a number featuring less prominently in the Left Behind books.
So I came up with a list of criteria and, armed with those, headed to my “edit friends” page for a good old-fashioned social media massacre. An answer of “yes” to any of the following questions would mark the person for deletion.
Does this person have a child and/or marriage more than three years old that I was not aware of?
Would it take more than 10 seconds to explain how I know this person?
Does this person subscribe to “Daily Horoscope” or “Daily Fortune Cookie”?
If this person called during an episode of Tosh.O that I had recorded on my DVR and had already seen twice, would I send them to voicemail?
If I were lying over the edge of a cliff and had this person in one hand and a carne asada burrito (extra guacamole) in the other and I had to let go of one of them, would I have to think about it?
OK, so that last one was a joke, but you get the point. Using these filters, I figured I could ditch at least a hundred and perhaps as many as 640 of my Facebook “friends” without breaking a sweat.
I got through 30.
As it turns out, unfriending people (though empowering and kind of entertaining) is also quite difficult for me. Watching me clean up my Facebook account is like watching a hoarder clean out a walk-in closet. I looked at the T-ball teammate I had not spoken to since Janet Reno was a relevant reference like they’d look at their collection of McDonald’s wrappers and say, “You know, you just never know.”
But why? What was I really hoping to gain by keeping these people around? These were individuals who I had no interest in maintaining a relationship with. We hadn’t really been friends in years and it was unlikely that we ever would be again. So what was it about their status updates and mobile uploads that I didn’t think I could live without?
I’ll tell you what it was: baseball cards.
There was a time when I had more than 2,000 baseball cards. I loved those cards more than anything on the planet. I pored over them for hours every day; dutifully memorizing the pictures on the front and the statistics on the back. I could tell you everything there was worth knowing about all of my favorite players. But I didn’t know those players. I wasn’t engaging with them in any kind of meaningful way. I just collected them, and when I was done with them, I put them in boxes and moved on with my life.
And so it is with my Facebook friends. I’ve spent 20 years building my collection of connections and I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. This parallel brought home for me one of the most concerning symptoms of life in the age of social media: relationships have become commodities. With our profile pages, party pics, wall posts and comment sections, we have translated the details of our lives into consumable goods—easily collected, reviewed, stored and forgotten. We have become compilations of biographical information presented in an attractive interface.
This is both the appeal and the danger of Facebook. People are easier to handle online. They may look and sound a little differently, they may post a few too many baby pictures or occasionally use the prefix “meta” in their status updates, but they all come formatted the same way. It is this ease of use that allows Facebook to disseminate information as rapidly and broadly as it does, but there is a difference between being in the loop and being in a relationship. The danger comes when we confuse the two or, worse, substitute the former for the latter. Social media, when used as a supplement for deeper relationships, is an incredible tool and there are many excellent reasons to rely on it. (ex. Because it’s efficient. Because international calls are expensive. Because Gram-Gram is a rambler.) It’s only when it becomes a stand-in for real relationships that it should give us pause.
I’m not here to tell you how to use your Facebook account. Nor am I going to use Proverbs 18:24 (“A man of many companions may come to ruin…”) to establish some kind of morally acceptable friend count. But what I will say is that we could all do with a bit more critical thinking when it comes to how and why we use social media. While my efforts to reduce my “friendship footprint” were not as successful as I’d hoped, they did force me to analyze my Facebook activity in a way I hadn’t since before my first job interview when I’d had to untag all those spring break pictures. And for that, I am thankful.
In the weeks since, I have become more active on Facebook, not less. Where I used to passively scroll from one profile to the next, I now try to let my friends know I was there. I post comments, I send messages, I have even—in moments of weakness—consented to “like” certain things. I’ve also tried to use my Facebook account as a bridge to other forms of communication.
In short, I’ve tried to integrate my use of social media into the larger picture of my social life. And I’ve tried to remind myself that the people cluttering up my news feed are just that: people. Not commodities, not baseball cards. They are human beings created in the image of the Almighty. Facebook may not be able to present them in all of their many-layered complexity, but that doesn’t mean there’s not more I could be doing to move beyond the iPhone notifications and into a deeper communion with those the Lord has placed in my life (and on my profile page).