I spent this past weekend with my daughter, enjoying crisp New England weather and Parents’ Weekend festivities. Actually, we skipped most of the official festivities other than her singing group’s performances, and I spent much of the weekend visiting friends and just hanging out with Mariah, something I miss when she’s so far away.
Friday afternoon, we found ourselves with a couple of hours free, so we slipped into a movie theater and watched “The Social Network” — or, as everyone seems to be calling it, the Facebook movie. It was an odd experience to be only two “T” stops away from some of the locations, watching a story of college life and entrepreneurship unfold in front of us. Without presuming to judge the “truth” of the story, we both found ourselves utterly engaged with the various social dynamics at play — the meaning of “friendship,” in particular, is up for grabs throughout.
Later that evening we joined a large group for dinner, among whom were friends and friends of friends, as well as their — mostly grown — children. Among the children-of-friends-of-friends was one young woman who had been at Harvard during the time of the founding of Facebook, and who counted at least one of the principals among her friends — or, perhaps, her “friends.” She had decided not to see the movie on the grounds that she’d rather not see her friends misrepresented on screen. Another in the group had chosen not to see it as well, but his reasons were rather different. He, too, is in the “Facebook generation,” but resented the idea that Facebook would be his generation’s legacy, and feared that the movie might imply that it was.
We had a lovely dinner and ended the evening promising — at least some of us — to “facebook” each other and stay in touch, aware of the irony of that promise in the context of the film Mariah and I had just seen. But, like it or not (and watching the movie will certainly not make you like Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg), Facebook has become one of the primary means of staying in touch for many of us, far beyond the “Facebook” generation of folks in their early twenties.
Mariah and I headed back to our friends’ house that evening where we opened our laptops, shared YouTube videos, and, yes, spent some time on Facebook. The friends with whom we were staying are, in fact, “internet friends” of mine — while we met in person first, our relationship developed and grew almost entirely online, through blogs and email and Facebook and Twitter. It only seemed fitting that we’d sit in a room together doing in person what we’d done so many times online over the years.
Our in-person gathering was far richer than those virtual connections, of course, just as I relish the time spent in the same room with my daughter far more than our regular internet contact. Still, we are really friends, not just “friends” through the medium of the social network. When I called my husband to report on our day’s activities, he asked me if the movie made me want to stay off Facebook, remove my profile, or at least spend less time on it. But it didn’t, and doesn’t — while I have no desire to “friend” Mark Zuckerberg (indeed, one question the film raises is whether the character, let alone the real human being who presumably stands behind that character to some degree, is even capable of what most of us would call friendship) — still I have found his invention useful in keeping alive connections that might otherwise attenuate through time and distance.
My daughter’s about to declare a major, and she’s strongly considering anthropology — the study, one might say, of social (and other human) networks. We are social beings, after all, and the ways we facilitate our connections shift with the times. So far I’m hopeful about Facebook, despite my misgivings about its origins and its many and varied misuses. But I also know that it will be replaced, perhaps sooner than I think, with some other technology, some other means of communication that will seem just as rich and fresh — and, probably, threatening — as Facebook now does. And nothing I learned over the weekend changed my mind about that, or about the real necessity of in-person contact for the best maintenance of social networks.