On Friendships On-Line

Lately I’ve been having a shift of perspective.

The first I heard of Facebook was from a Gr. 11 student, Sarah, back in 2005-06. I understood the basic idea and remember calling it, I think, “narcissistic,” or no, it was “otiose,” throwing down the vocab-gauntlet to impress and intimidate all at once. Of course, I was mostly kidding, in that Haha-Foolish-Youngster-Teacher-Knows-Best kind of way. And of course, the friendly feud that followed lasted several weeks or longer: “Mr Rob,” they’d ask, “when are you going to sign on? We want to Facebook you.”

I’d say stuff like, “… neither of those words is a verb,” or “How many more ways do I need to stay in touch with people?” or “You go on wasting your life in front of a glowing blue screen.”

Jokes. All in fun, just kidding, except for… a touch not.

What I didn’t say, from underneath, was, “I’ve never felt much need to draw attention to myself.” Maybe on a performance stage but, even up there, for me, definitely all for fun, not passion. We’re all built differently, what is me is strictly me, and passing judgment wouldn’t have been right or fair, just condescending. So I didn’t say.

I did say “narcissistic,” in fun, to play my role, push the joke. But what I didn’t say was how look-at-me syndrome had always made me itch a little: “Look! Look at me! Are you looking at me?” There’ve been times I’ve even looked away from someone, on purpose, feeling so grated by it. That’s aloof, I admit, and not to excuse it. But again, not mean-spirited, just really different hard-wiring beneath my control. For all our kidding around, adults vs kids, feuding generations, I really just didn’t understand my students’ enthusiasm for sharing themselves on Facebook. For the same reason, not unlike others I’ve known, I never felt much desire to be sharing my own life and times – on-line or off, made no difference.

So, naturally, the day I did sign on, August 2013, Sarah was the first Friend request, right after my brothers. And, naturally, she had me eating crow. And we laughed and said how glad we were to hear from each other. There I was on Facebook, a mere eight years behind the wave – typical me: still waters running deep where the currents are inexorable, even sluggish. I finally joined for the ease of staying in touch with another friend, Mark, one of those friends for a lifetime, going on forty years, who’s been living 700 miles away for nearly half that time. It’s been great hearing from him more regularly, and catching up was pretty seamless – same laughs, same interests, same ol’ good ol’ friendship. In fact, my gradual unfolding with Facebook has found me appreciating friendship a little more altogether. But, more than that, my experience has found me appreciating otiose, narcissistic Facebook itself.

Facebook’s essential concept – people connecting, sharing, and expressing themselves – hasn’t changed much since its launch in 2004, and I still spot the odd look-at-me in my newsfeed although, to be fair, those pleas have lately seemed fewer and further. By lately, I mean the past two, three years – sluggish currents. Introvert that I am, I’m wary of over-posting my life, and I try to select only what I feel my audience of friends would appreciate or spend time to see (which is somewhat closer to how I’d describe stage performance, and writing too, though still not exactly). I’ve been pondering my rising appreciation for what Facebook is, or what it can be. I’ve been wondering whether all my itching over limelighters merely amounted to me guarding myself, and if so, from what? Or whom? And I’ve been wondering about what my old profs called the liminal space, specifically the overlap where Facebook ends and I begin, or maybe better to put it the other way around. I no longer wonder whether, deep down, my inexorable currents are able to ebb and flow. Lately, I’ve been having a shift of perspective about connecting and sharing and friendship.

It’s come about not from Facebook but from travelling. In the past when I travelled, I knew somehow, deep down, I wasn’t getting full value. Some part of me, too much, remained at home. I was afraid to let go, which is another story, but it was essentially the same reticence I had for sharing myself on-line. Travel, though, has that enticing way of inviting us to venture and explore, familiar wisdom that the more we learn, the more we realise how much there is to learn. In more recent travels – by recent, I mean the past five, six years – the more places I went, people I met, the more I learned that sharing myself wasn’t some desperate grab for attention, some break with humility. It was acknowledgement that others would judge me for themselves – not “look at me” but “Hey, this is me,” said with self-confidence and a willingness to meet other people in the overlap. Emerging from the cave is humbling, and either daunting or encouraging, but it doesn’t just broaden our horizons. It can transect them, if we let it. And fair enough, not all at once. But if I’d only ever stayed home…

Questions linger, a sluggish introvert like me doesn’t change overnight. Certainly, though, I’m far less guarded these days, more outgoing, more willing to share in that friendly confident way. When I travel now, I no longer leave some part of me at home when I depart so much as I leave a piece of me behind when I return. By travel, I mean anywhere, from London Drugs to London, England. If we travel to see for ourselves, we’re running errands. Travel should be for sharing. Life is a chance to tell the world we exist, to leave a little of ourselves behind, and to bring some of the adventure back home.

One friend I met while travelling I credit the most for opening my eyes. Today, 2300 miles apart, I consider Audrey one of my best friends. Early on, Audrey shared a travel story with me about appreciating something unexpected all the more for its rarity. Her story – but, really, her generosity and respect – helped me reconsider the traveller – but, really, me – as uniquely worthy of recognition. Audrey offered me the space to overlap. Where her story ended, mine was able to begin. We’ve stayed in touch ever since …by e-mail. Audrey feels a little averse to Facebook and social media which, to be fair, is not uncommon. Maybe you know somebody similar.

So, am I glad I signed on to Facebook? I definitely don’t kick myself for waiting, not like Sarah did, anyway. On the other hand, I scroll through it every day, so maybe I’m addicted. Like I said, questions linger. But it’s unlike the utility, say, of plain old SMS, which I find really useful – where texting is an errand, Facebook is for travel, and travelling’s something I’ve learned to enjoy. I’ll need more time to decide about blogging, and I have an opinion about on-line comments, too. As for the bulk of social media apps – Twitter, Instagram, all the rest – shades of grey. How many more ways do I need to stay in touch before the means become the end? But let’s take care not to judge with real offense, not with real people at each end of every message.

To let Sarah and Mark stand as representative of my Facebook experience, the value and quality I’ve found on-line is not that of drawing attention to myself so much as people taking genuine interest in hearing from me – like I said, a shift of perspective. More importantly, a shift for the better. Life can still get lonely, at times, because where there’s a place for Type A, that’s just never been me. But the current, somewhat-improved version of me is glad to be more outgoing than before and glad to have an outlet for expression. In an odd sort of way, Facebook helped me practise, and if not for that, I wonder whether I would have spoken to Audrey that first time.

Facebook has offered me something I’d thought neither possible nor desirable, the chance to let the world know I’m here. Facebook makes that possible. What I must never forget is that my friends are what makes it worthwhile.

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