Sunday, September 5, 2010

Friending & Unfriending: What Does "Friendship" Mean?

Sometimes I don't think the word "friend" means what it used to mean anymore.

When I was twelve one of my teachers explained it like this: You have three circles around you: first friends, fence friends, and fringe friends.

Your first friends are the first people you turn to. These are people you can count on the fingers of one hand. Your lives are intertwined. They are your sidekicks, you are theirs. They are your confidantes. You can tell them your deepest darkest secrets and they still love you. They are the ones you turn to when you hurt. You are there for them when they hurt. They are tied up in all your best memories and even if life takes you in different places, whenever you come back together it is like you were never apart. They are closer than family. When you are apart you miss them. They are your best friends, sometimes better than family. You love them.

Your fence friends surround you. You meet them at school, at work; they move in all the same circles you do.  You have a dozen or more of these friends. Life throws you together and you find you have stuff in common. You invite them to big parties and your family events like graduations and weddings. They have been to your house and you have been to theirs. You see them now and again and have lots of fun with them, but they have their own lives as you have yours. When they go their own ways you don't miss them, though you do occasionally wonder about them. They are just friends. You like them.

Your fringe friends are on the outside edges of your life. The people you say hello to at the library, chat up at the supermarket. The guy who fixes your car. The mailman. The neighbor across the street. The teachers at your school. You see them at the book club or the history society or at the coffee shop you frequent.  They may know you by name, but you probably would not tell each other details of your lives. They might help in an emergency, but they likely would not seek you out for counsel. If you never saw them again you might not even notice. They are friendly acquaintances. They seem to be nice people.

So there is the mindset I grew up with. And all my life people I met fit into one or more of these categories. Best friends. Friends. Acquaintances.

Then came Facebook, and Twitter, LinkedIn, and Second Life. Now my "friends" number in the hundreds. I have friends I have never met. Never spoken to face to face.  I have virtual coffee in Twitter every morning with a bunch of people I really like from all over the world.  I have gotten close to some of them in Second Life as well as Twitter.

My SL friends range from virtual lovers (or ex-lovers) to people I bumped into at some virtual event once. They have been in SL from my beginnings and Some came into my life with an intensity that left me breathless. And left leaving me feeling hollow.  Are we still friends if we never speak?

Friendships in virtual worlds come and go so fast I no longer know how to place them in my life. Should I trust the intensity of my feelings for someone who is liable to disappear without a trace in a year, few months, days. How are we to be friends if I never know your real name? We friend and unfriend as our moods and tempers wax and wane--the emotions are certainly real. But what does it mean if you can discard me or I can discard you at the click of an "unfollow" button?

How can we be lovers without that real touch that first friends have in real life? Do I really mean to you what you say I mean to you or are the connections we make in a virtual world as much a fiction as the alternate reality itself. Isn't it a commitment to a virtual friendship just as deep as a real one? We are, after all, real people behind these avatars.

What does it mean when I am falling for you, have fallen in love with you, and suddenly you are gone? I don't think I know any more. And sadly, because of the strangeness of SL friendships that have gone from sweet to bitter in a matter of days, I don't think I can ever trust "friendships" like I once did.

Sometimes it feels like all my friendships have become emptier.

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