I ask Silent Boy for his friend count. He’s back from a long stint at the alternative school and most of his answers are monosyllabic utterances or the Darth Vader death stare so I figure this might be a decent ice breaker.
“How many friends do you have?” I ask again. He looks away.
I move on to another student. “Hey, how many friends do you have?” I ask. It’s not as awkward as it sounds. Students are used to teachers asking questions that are deeper, more personal and more random than what we ask from fellow adults.
“In real life?” he asks.
“No, in Middle Earth,” another boy interrupts.
“Okay. Probably three hundred,” he answers.
“Like the movie?” I ask.
“Yeah, I have three hundred friends.”
“I have nine,” I tell him.
“List them for me,” he says. As I begin to list my friends, he counts them off and tells me that my friend count is higher than what I had first expected. It’s not three hundred, but I’ll take eleven.
* * *
I ask a teacher for his friend count and he says, “What do you mean by friend?”
“My mentor Brad the Philosopher says that they’re your pall bearers. They’re the ones who would drop everything to carry your casket at a funeral.”
“What if you want to be cremated?”
“Then I guess you don’t need as many friends.”
“Good, because I have three friends. We’ve known each other forever.” He wears this as a badge of honor and for a moment I’m jealous. I wish I had people who not only know my story, but have lived it for their lifetime. And yet, there is something tragic in reaching an age where you add drinking buddies and quit making friends.
* * *
When we come back from lunch, I ask a student to quantify her friends. She asks me to define friendship. In fact, aside from the student with three hundred friends, everybody I ask wants a clarification on the meaning of friendship. It’s the layers of meaning, the nuance of definitions and the ambiguity of relationships that I miss social networks. In real-life, I might consider a person a close friend while that same person considers me a close acquaintance. Facebook forces us into a rigid, bland definition of friend and then pushes us to share our lists with the entire world.
So I tell this student about Brad the Philosopher’s definition and she says, “I don’t have any friends. I got burned last year. I don’t know if I can trust anyone. So, no, I don’t have any friends.”
A small group gathers around as students work on their independent projects. We discuss the nature of friendship, the risk in engaging in relational conflict and the question of whether it would be better to live a pain-free lonely life or to fully engage and experience the emotional pain of an imperfect humanity.
In the midst of the discussion, Silent Boy stops by and says, “Two. The answer is two.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have two friends. Unless you count people who have died. Then I have three.” I start thinking about friends, about space, about our mortality.
“What happens to your Facebook when you die?” a boy asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t your cyber footprint last forever? I heard that when you delete your account they still keep it.”
“Maybe that’s the promise of Facebook. Maybe it’s our chance to feel immortal,” I say.
* * *
When I arrive at home, Christy and I ask her brother about his friend count. What begins as a list becomes a time of sharing stories. That’s another layer missing in social media. It’s a narrative-free medium. Or if it is a narrative, it’s one of those disjointed, postmodern Memento style stories where nothing makes sense until you see the end.
Later that evening, I go to a church meeting and wonder if this group of guys qualify as a circle of friends yet. I leave at ten and stop by a convenient store to pick up a candy bar for a student’s birthday. A few homeless people people chat about the weather. I want to ask them about their friend counts, but at the last second I walk away.
“Hey, do you mind me asking how many friends you have?” I ask.
“I’m doing Facebook in-person,” I stammer. “I have nine friends.”
“I just moved here and I work two jobs,” he says.
“So, not too many friends?” I ask.
“Your total is $1.09,” he answers.
I drive home thinking about friends. I’ve lost touch with four friends here in town, but the existence of Facebook allows me to feel as if we’re still connected. I read their status updates. That’s enough, right? It has me thinking of the couples that Christy and I have lost touch with. Maybe we need to the Facebook thing and invite them over to reconnect over some eggplant parmesan.
It has me thinking about my interactions with strangers, too. I could blame social media for creating a system where we don’t know our neighbors. However, I think it goes back further than that. Perhaps it started with industrialization and urbanization. We started building compartments and then living in tidy boxes until eventually we had created assembly line lives.
Or maybe the real issue is more primitive. Maybe we’re perpetually lonely because that’s part of the human condition. Perhaps it goes back to our mythology. Babel babble. We can’t communicate. Or further still. We’ve left the garden and we’re scared to be naked.
The light is on when I get home. I cuddle up next to Christy. She’s asleep. She’s beautiful. I hold her as close as I possibly can. Screw the numbers. Screw the friend counts. Forget the followers or subscribers. I’m next to my closest friend.
Before dozing off, I think back to Facebook. The one thing social media cannot provide is intimacy.