I went camping the other weekend with a couple friends and a few acquaintances. As we got through the day setting up camp, cracking open beers, and gathering things to burn, we all talked. We talked about the manatees we saw while paddling out to our campsite, and if it would rain, and where the bug spray was. We talked about future plans and past travel and current life.
By the end of the night we'd all gotten to know each other better. We learned about the places we'd all gone. We learned that two of us were from the same big city suburbs some 600 miles away. We talked about deeper things.
Interaction online is funny, especially in the “social” space. You get to tell people about yourself without caring if they want to hear it in the first place. Facebook is meant for dumping every detail about you into a permanent profile for anyone to read. You dump a list of friends and family on there. You dump your daily thoughts and your opinions on others' thoughts. You dump your taste in music and movies and books. You dump your political affiliations on there.
Once you've done that, anyone can stop by and read what you've dumped. They can quickly determine your character without you saying a word or ever looking at them. And you'd think that's the goal of software like that. Facebook is really a self-profile with commenting and “connecting” added on. Which brings me to my next point.
On a camping trip with people you know or don't, no one draws lines between the groups and says, “we're friends, you're acquaintances, you two are married, we're dating.” The environment provides some kind of commonality — you're all in the same space to do the same thing together. Then over time you learn about the people surrounding you.
On supermassive all-purpose social networks like Facebook, there is a vapid culture and no implied commonality built-in — except that you're all on Facebook at different times, liking and throwing out your two cents on things. There, human relationships are sliced and mechanically separated into billions of one-to-one connections to make it easier to display with the rest of your self-dump. It's like a city where a billion people live but everyone is invisible except your few reciprocating friends.
What does a “friend” or “follow” or “connect” mean on the web, anyway? When I follow someone on Twitter or Instagram, I'm usually doing so because I like their tweets or photos. But following someone also tells them something — maybe that I like their tweets. Maybe that I'm attracted to them. Above all, now they know I exist, and if they're bored maybe they can figure out who I am by visiting my feed — and instantly we are silent acquaintances. But what happens when we unexpectedly see each other in real life? Do I say, “Hey, @ilikebeans! I like your tweets! Really sorry about your cat, but I liked your blog post. Oh and great tip about that band!”
Maybe it's the initial connection context that makes things weird. In school or other times of high sociality, adding a “friend” on Facebook made sense. The kids in my school made up almost everyone I knew outside of my family. I saw them every day. Even the ones I wasn't as close to I could call my friends because we saw each other so often and at that point you couldn't go wrong by having loads of “friends.”
But “friend request” doesn't make as much sense when you get out of that. Now I have friends and acquaintances in different parts of the world, known in various contexts for various lengths of time. I barely have time to keep up with most of them. So the “friend request” is really a mutual human bookmark so that I can just silently follow people I've met at least once.
But I'm an optimist. Personally I look forward to the next one-click solution to this awkwardness. Whether it's gentle creepiness of the one-way follow or the ceremony of generously calling everyone “friend,” it's clear we still haven't arrived at a good substitute for human interaction yet. So maybe we go the full bot route, where we cut the crap and let artificial intelligence chat, tweet, and Facebook for us, freeing us to go meet our friends for lunch or (really) just download the next ground-breaking freemium game. Or perhaps we bring these online norms into reality, asking people if they'll be our friends or if we can follow them down the road and listen to everything they say, real-life retweeting and “liking” things along the way. Whichever route we take, I know humanity will be better off, and especially more social than we've ever been.