Are Facebook Friends Real ?

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By Suradip Das

William Penn defined friends as –

A true friend freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably.”

My parents tell me that during my Annaprashan (a Bengali rice-eating ceremony for 6-8 month old child), I had chosen a Pen. Turns out, these apparently stupid rituals are not always meaningless. From my childhood, a new pen and a new notebook have remained my favorite gifts and I would start writing on any topic in a frenzy if I got those two. This is something my grandparents used as bait to get me to write. I always felt a strange comfort and ease in expressing myself while writing. With time, pen and paper was replaced by a computer keyboard and free flowing catharsis got replaced by structured professional manuscripts. I blame this transition for my now almost illegible handwriting from which I decided to spare you all!

The incident that sparked the questionAre Facebook Friends Real ?

However, today something happened which compelled me to ditch my computer and pick up a pen and write on paper – because I needed to write from my heart. The question that has been troubling me is – Are social media friends REAL ? We are all made to believe that Social Media has connected the world but taken people farther apart. Indeed, we are often so engrossed chatting with Facebook friends that we ignore the existence of our so-called Real life friends.

So, why am I asking this question suddenly when we know that Facebook friends are not REAL ?

Today, one of my Facebook friends and her partner died in a road accident. I found this out when one of our mutual friends shared the news. The cover picture of the news had a selfie of the beautiful couple on one side and their bodies on a stretcher on another side. My first reaction was – ” Oh another fake and disgusting news!” I went to her profile and a window “Remembering XXXX” popped up. It suddenly struck me like a Tsunami. I was shocked and speechless; just could not believe it.

Did I “know” her ? If I remember correctly, we connected in Facebook couple of years back. During these two years, we have NEVER interacted or even said a “Hi” to each other. At most, we would sometimes react in each others’ post. Hence, in the conventional definition of “knowing” a person – she was a total stranger.

Then why do I feel so much shock and pain upon hearing the news of her sudden demise ? As I try to reminisce, I realize that I actually know quite a lot about her just through her Facebook posts. I know she was a jovial person who loved to hang out with friends and loved her boyfriend a lot. I also know their love story started when they met on a flight from Bangalore. I know about where she stood on different social or political issues. I know at least some of her likes, dislikes and values in life. I also know she was a wonderful dancer and recently was interested in “sitting and dancing” – when she would just sit and perform on a song by hand gestures and facial expressions. She was damn good at it! After knowing so much , how can I say she was a total stranger and just another Facebook friend ? I do feel connected and a personal loss!

Cognitive connection with social media friends

Coming back to the question that has been haunting me following this shocking incident – “Are Facebook Friends REAL ?” On an average, we spend around 2-3 hours per day on social media. I think we underestimate the cognitive connect we develop with our social media contacts. According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, human beings can maintain on an average 150 connections (click here). However, with growing social media use this number is being challenged now! I have over a 1000 friends on Facebook, out of which I barely know a 100 – 200 people personally. However, I feel a range of emotions looking at all of their posts. If these friends were not REAL, then why should I FEEL anything about their activities ? I am sure many of you have such friends in your social media platforms with whom you have never interacted but see their posts everyday and unconsciously get to know quite a lot about them.

The full extent and nature of cognitive connect with social media friends is still not completely understood. Photo Courtesy: Google Image
The full extent and nature of cognitive connect with social media friends is still not completely understood. Photo Courtesy: Google Image

Another persisting notion about social media friends is that they do not comply with the golden rule of friendship – “A friend in need, is a friend indeed”. If we carefully evaluate this, we will find that this is not entirely true. Friends in social media do help even if you have never interacted with one another. This is easily evident upon the overwhelming support for Blood donations, personally initiated community services, support for businesses through Facebook pages, personal family emergencies etc.

Hence, just like other friends, we feel happy for their success, inspired by their achievements, anger when they have contrasting views and grief for their loss. It is high time that we accept friends in social media are not Chatbots, they are actual people, about whom we will be surprised to find out that we share more common values than we realize.

So Are Facebook Friends REAL ? – While most social media contacts are not friends, we constantly underestimate the number of people we are unconsciously connected to; meaning we have more Friends in Facebook than we appreciate!

This post is written in memory of my Facebook friend. I pray that she Rests in Peace in Heaven with her soulmate! The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

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