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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

September 8, 2012 at 8:46 PM

Are all those ‘friends’ really friends? Why it doesn’t really matter

Some time ago I stumbled across a nifty bar chart from the always illuminating Pew Internet & American Life Project. It showed that Facebook users 75 and older have an average of 42 friends on the network, while users age 18 to 34 — surprise, surprise — have 319.

I could almost see the 75-plus bar lean toward the 18-34 bar. “Oh yeah?” it snarls. “And how many real friends are that?”

We who relish the nuance of online connection have been trying to legitimize our hundreds or thousands of online “friends” since the MySpace era, and — let’s face it — it’s not going well.

“Real friends do not exist on Facebook,” a reader declared in the comments to a previous column. “They exist in flesh and blood.”

It doesn’t matter if you’ve Facebooked since 2004, tweeted since 2007 or managed to get those Google+ Circles to reflect the shifting spheres of your social life (kudos). More likely than not, describing who all these people are takes a little thinking, a little stammering, and two or three declarations that — who knows? — might be outright lies.

To think: Counting friends used to be weird and kind of personal. Now we’re posting tally after tally all over the Web, and it’s becoming everybody’s business to wonder:

How do you find the “real friends” in this haze of “connections”?

Seattle culture guru Warren Etheredge subjected me to his friend detector test when he asked, in an August 2011 interview on his online show, “The High Bar,” how many of my thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends I thought I could turn to and rely on “in moments of crisis.”

I didn’t take long to answer. “About 40 to 50,” I said.

Etheredge made a face as if I had just hurled my drink at his cameraman.

“Forty to 50?” he yelped. “That’s a lot!”

I thought I was being conservative. It took months for me to realize we had stumbled over a surprising result of a new way friendship can work. We’re used to thinking of friendship as something whole and enduring. But just as iTunes chopped albums into songs and tweets chopped conversations into passing quips, some of the different roles of friendship, like support, encouragement and companionship, can — thanks to social technologies — split off, scatter, and still work.

Sift your network through any one of these roles and you’ll catch not top-to-bottom friends, necessarily, but countless acts of friendship.

What does that mean? It means we don’t need to know each other to help each other. It means we can come to the aid of almost anyone at any time. It means, in the end, that friends don’t have the monopoly on friendship.

Doing good outside the bounds of friendship has always been possible, of course. It just never has been this easy.

Seattle social media consultant Heidi Miller once tweeted from her car at a dead stop in the middle of a Connecticut snowstorm. An Alabama man she’d connected with through her podcast called her, found her location (this was before iPhones had GPS and Google Maps) and mapped an alternate route for her.

Tech entrepreneur and tech author Vanessa Fox went online to say she was stranded in Cyprus with no access to her money.  A person she knew a little wired her money from Switzerland and a person she didn’t know at all offered her a place to rest and made sure she got to the airport.

How many people can I turn to in a crisis? A small group of family and close friends I’d think to reach out to — if I keep the trouble offline.

But if I take it online, if I decide that’s all right, it’s all of them plus an unpredictable number of other friends, acquaintances, professional contacts and even strangers who might help, maybe more quickly or more effectively than the people I know and see the most.

These tech-connected “friends” won’t ever replace the flesh-and-blood people with whom we form deep, enduring relationships. But they can act the part a time or two, and even audition for a permanent role.

Public relations consultant Imelda Dulcich meets two unfamiliar Twitter followers in person every week, and has done so for more than  two years. I was one of the first.

“I could never calculate the number of friends in certain circles,” she wrote on a Facebook thread leading to this column. “I believe that people are as good and true a friend as they are able to be, depending on the moment they are in.”

So are people friends if they act like friends for a moment here, an hour there? Can we draw clean lines between our networks and our friends once and for all?

No, we can’t, and maybe we shouldn’t. Because when we’re so connected, the prevalence of friends doesn’t matter nearly as much as the prevalence of friendship.

And that’s already off the charts.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or subscribe to her on Facebook.

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