T killed himself on Facebook. He was depressed. He drank constantly. He distanced himself from friends. His liver was failing. He was injured in a fall and hospitalized in August. And never came out. He weighed 85 lbs when he died two weeks before Thanksgiving. T's demise took months and happened in plain view on Facebook. I didn't notice.
More than a decade ago, maybe two, T and I became well acquainted through one of my closest friends. T, a talented cook, made me the occasional dinner party guest. A few years later, T, a talented fashion designer, made Allison's elegant pale grey chiffon wedding dress and scarf trimmed with bugle beads and my matching striped silk charmeuse and doupioni vest. T had a wicked sense of humor, but sufficiently biting to discourage close friendship. But when Facebook opened to non-students, we quickly became "friends". In 2009, T began posting what amounted to an exhaustive autobiographical photo essay about his life. It piqued enough curiosity that I spent many minutes clicking through countless photos of unknown people and places in T's past, but no time actually reaching out. When T died, I found out the old-fashioned way, in a face-to-face conversation with the friend who introduced us. On returning to my desk I did what over 250 million people do daily, I checked Facebook and found that T and I were no longer friends.
Or were we? Friendship - and betrayal - have always eluded any definition other than that of the beholder. Now, the social web allows us to easily count our connections. I have over 1,000 "friends" on Facebook and LinkedIn and over 600 "followers" on Twitter. Replacing the tired query "who are your friends" with the contemporary query "who are your connections" is akin to replacing live music with an mp3 and calling them equal.
The problem is in the cultural asymmetries that can lead to misconceptions. I fear that T, a denizen of the old world, mistook "connections" for "friends" and built false expectations of his connections into his online Bataan Death March. But I know that many inhabitants of the brave new social world make the same mistake.
Some would assert that friends in the online world are those included in Dunbar's number, the number of "people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person", according to Wickipedia.
Dunbar's number is irrelevant! proclaims Jacob Morgan in Social Media Today. Dunbar's number may cover so-called "strong ties", not "weak ties". But he is interested in the weak ties, for
"they form bridges to worlds we do not walk within. Strong ties, on the other hand, tend to be worlds we already know; a good friends often knows many of the same people and things we know. They are not the best when it comes to searching for new jobs, ideas, experts, and knowledge. Weak ties are also good because they take less time. It's less time consuming to talk to someone once a month (weak tie) than twice a week (a strong tie). People can keep up quite a few weak ties without them being a burden."
Social networks do enable people to increase the number of weak ties, but strong ties remain relatively few. But both increase proportionately with the size of the overall network.
In the discussion of Dunbar, strong ties and the weak, I wasn't finding a nice, neat way to distinguish between a "friend" and a "connection" until I saw my friend David Larkin, who remarked at how it made his day how happy I looked whenever I ran into him in the street or the subway.
A friend, according to Merriam-Webster, is "one attached to another via affection or esteem".
A friend, according to me, cannot be quantified by what I know about the past, the common connections we have, whether we have a "strong" or "weak" ties, or how long I've known them or how often I've seen them. The difference is in the emotional fidelity. A friend is one who lights up when they see me, and who lights up in return when I see them. In person. No matter what. And whether a year or two decades has passed, we are in each other's business as if time were irrelevant.
To my eye, as a beholder, T was a friend and I mourn his passing.