The more we see on television news anchors telling us what is happening in the world and read on Facebook posts ‘friends’ giving us their version of what is occurring around us, the more we give in to an obliteration of the difference between the actual and the illusory. News for most people are snippets of an earthquake here and a stone-hurling demonstration there, followed by a busty actress delivering an otiose, overlong harangue at an awards ceremony. Political pundits can be counted on to deliver eulogies or diatribes, depending on their party affiliation, and seldom to analyze the real political issues.
The same illusion has now affected our personal relationships. The louder we proclaim our love for somebody, the hollower it sounds. The more we speak of eternal fealty to someone dear, the less believable it rings even in our own ears – and the less it persuades the listener. Do we really believe it when we make any such a declaration? A woman I once knew would never say, to my chagrin, the words “I love you” because she said, with touching credibility, “I said them once to someone who has now sunk into oblivion. What kind of love is it that dissolves so soon? I don’t want to mouth the words frivolously and degrade them.”
One could say friendship too is degraded when it is reduced to ‘friending.’ Robin Dunbar, the British sociologist, did a socio-anthropological study and determined that our range of friendship extends to no more than 150 persons. He tried to establish a link between the size of brains and the number of friends, and claimed he found that, among primates to humans in different types of groups, true relationship exists between a limited number of entities. Whether we talk of chimpanzees grooming one another or men and women caring for one another, there is seldom a close nexus beyond the magic number of 150.
Before you explode with envy about their huge number of friends, it is perhaps worth pondering the nature of this massive herd of friends. On-line friends by definition are quite different from off-line companions: they don’t turn up with soup if you are sick or escort you to a bar if you are disheartened. They will write a line of approbation if they like your song or film, provided their bosses or wives are not making their lives miserable at the moment. They will certainly not come to hold your hand if your wife deserts you or your boss sacks you.
A note of approbation is certainly not without value. In a largely indifferent world, few pay attention to your accomplishments. Even lovers and children are often notoriously indifferent to what you do in your profession, unless it brings in a new car or at least a new outfit for them. We all need, indeed desperately crave for, some acknowledgement of what we have done, even if what we have done is a letter to the local newspaper or a win in the community’s chess championship.
That is what the social media is good for. To make you feel ‘liked,’ attended to, recognized. Clearly many people want those, even need those, judged by the regularity and alacrity they show in running to their Facebook page. The mistake would be to expect more and make friending a substitute for friendship. A Facebook friend is more like an admirer or hand-holder than like a true companion, with some mutual rapport that meets an emotional need. Such a person can provide agreement or adulation, a superficial finger-deep connection that can be as quick in leaving as in coming, but seldom the binding bond that can see you through darker days. What is good for Taylor Swift or Shah Rukh Khan may leave you feeling you have drawn the short straw.
My friend, John Stroud, a warm and decent man, started with Twitter, and quickly picked up dozens of followers and scores to follow. He graduated to Facebook and Instagram, then to Viber, Tumblr, WhatsApp, WeChat and QZone. He loved them all and posted diligently nearly everywhere, enjoying the excitement of multiple responses and numerous Likes.
All went well for a long time, until the day John made some remarks about a political leader that some found disagreeable and a few deemed offensive. Abusive ‘flaming’ followed. An activist group, possibly encouraged by the enraged leader, filed for legal action alleging defamation. Since the remarks came in the course of a long dialog in which several others participated, John sought their cooperation in defending himself in a highly partisan suit. Most of them were longstanding social media ‘friends’ and John counted on their unstinting support. It was a shock when, one by one, they all declined to be called as witnesses or be counted on for written testimonies. John was not just disappointed, he was embittered. More so, when he found his ‘followers’ and ‘friends’ no longer in touch, let alone supportive. His days of actively friending people on social media were over for good.