22 December 2009
I've just read an article in a Flemish newspaper about this year's candidates for word of the year in Dutch. Two of the top ten proposals – ontvrienden and Twitterazzo – come straight out of the social networking (SN) annals, the part of the internet dedicated to wasting loads of time keeping in touch with friends, relatives and basically anyone who shares your interest in wasting time.
I think my favourite is ontvrienden or the act of de-friending someone from Facebook or other online social networks. The subject came up recently at work – purely on a linguistic level – when a colleague asked if ‘un-friending' sounded like a reasonable expression for removing people from your social databases.
Discussion followed and the final conclusion was that, if a new word had to be created, then de-friend is better because it has a stronger sense of performing an action – leaving un-friend as the passive result of de-friending. You are an un-friend once de-friended, sort of thing.
Acquiring virtual friends is a tragic social inflation – your online credibility measured by the number of ‘friends' you can be linked to via these web-based platforms. It's like a twisted class of asset or Madoff scheme, and it spikes when you friend up with an A-class social networker or better still a real-world celebrity.
[A mate of mine has Jaimie Oliver as a Facebook friend which is pure SN gold.]
It's become obvious to me that, like the trade floor, investing in the social networking business is not for dabblers. To get good dividends, you have to put in the time, do the numbers and agree to every new app and service pushed down your throat. If you don't play the game, you get left behind – you become that little known Flemish painter, Ascot Nofriends.
This is where the virtual social world tends to mimic the real social world. If you play at networking too eagerly, you get shunned. If you were always a social leper in the school canteen and think this virtual world will be your chance to finally sit at the in-crowd table, you could be in for more rejection – 20 years later.
The problem with rejection this time is you now realise you've thrown good money at post-adolescent therapy. And all the confidence you've gained, the respect you've earned as a dentist, the proud family parked next to the new Audi… it's all undermined by a stupid technology whim. A whim that is desperate to prove it is not a whim by dreaming up a never-ending stream of trinkets and whistles to mesmerise the home-dead.
That's where this de-friending and un-friending business raises some thorny questions. A colleague commented recently that he didn't know how to de-friend someone who he used to go to school with and who kept badgering to join his Facebook. When I say badger, I probably mean stalk.
“I just gave in and agreed to friend this guy, but now I want to de-friend him,” he said.
It's straight out of the classics. The rejected lover, the scorned friend, the seat of power and the unquenched ambition of the underling. Shakespeare no doubt already covered this.
I knew I'd find a match: the comedy Love's Labour's Lost. Wikipedia says the title comes from a poem written by the Greek Theognis: “To do good to one's enemies is love's labours lost.” It's got the schoolmaster (all proper on the surface but cyber-grooming by night), the clown (the office joker who secretly covets virtual world credibility), kings, princes and ladies (the in-crowd swearing oaths to each other but all secretly cyber bullies), the wench (the emo-chick making alt-porn)… okay so it's getting weird. I'll move on.
No time to waste
As social creatures, we crave the contact and yet we spend more and more time behind a computer or digiting a smart phone. We Tweet our every waking thought and keep forensic-quality data on our movements, from the banal to the carnal. We photo caption our lives and our loves like an episode of another B-grade reality TV show.
Our families – the ones who live within close enough proximity to actually physically visit – are missing the real us. Our bosses who haven't already blocked the Web 2.0 (the social internet) functions and sites are losing money in lost efficiencies.
So, here we are with this so-called social tool, which is supposed to connect us with the world, but just seems to disconnect us from those who should matter the most. We are drawn to the cyber-friends, the friends of cyber-friends, friends long gone, and friends longed for but never real.
It's a bloody shame. So, as I de-friend Facebook, sell off my Sellaband credits, and ignore yet another Linkedin invitation, I'll be drawing a virtual circle round one of the stranger chapters in social evolution. Friends are not junk bonds, not a tradable asset, and definitely not worthy of a cold, uncaring new piece of argot.
Published with the author's permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.