Friendship in a Facebook

Posted: Aug 02, 2007 12:01 AM
Friendship in a Facebook

If you're ever in a jam, here I am
If you ever need a pal, I'm your gal
If you ever feel so happy you land in jail; I'm your bail
It's friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships have been forgot
Ours will still be hot.

Cole Porter's lyrics came back to me the other day on reading a commentary by a young woman, age 18, on the nature of friendship in the Age of Facebook. She bemoaned the new measurements in social networking. The number of "friends" who respond to a Facebook member are posted in a running count under your photograph.

"Facebook has brought to the forefront of my social life a necessity I seldom considered before selling my soul and signing up two months ago, friend quantity," laments the young woman in a message to The Washington Post. "Sure, we knew that the cool girls reigned in high school, but never before has such an unquestionably accurate popularity meter indicated down to the last individual your worth as a human being (or, at least, the precise number of people who thought you were worth the two seconds it takes to 'friend' someone)."

A writer in The Nation magazine defends youthful promiscuity as a positive way of identifying deeper intimacy. "Regardless of the (sometimes harmful) results of one-night stands or sex before high school," she says, "these women are looking to experiment, to find a contrast to immediate, eternal companionship." Uh, huh.

It's not just sex and social networking that quantifies value. Men and women sit through public meetings scrolling their BlackBerrys for messages as if whoever might be "messaging" them is more important than whoever they're with -- like someone looking over your shoulder at a cocktail party in search of someone more important to talk to. Before cell phones began to grow out of everyone's ears, a certain prominent Washington man I knew carried one of the clunky early phones and assigned someone at his office to call him during lunch or dinner so his dinner guest would see him as someone really important. Now we're told to turn off the phone in social situations, and there's always someone who remembers to "forget."

This impersonality of "friendship" probably grows from the workaholic nature of Americans, especially in Washington, where politics is all, and in New York, where money is nearly all. But it might be as well the absence of real friendship, of the trusting intimacy of genuine friends. Even a lasting marriage today is no better than a 50/50 proposition; the odds against other relationships lasting are considerably longer than that. Depression replaces devotion.

Having a thousand Facebook "friends" becomes a new American dream. "Here in Washington, D.C., we know networking," the Rev. Scott Garber told his congregation at the Washington Community Fellowship. "We can build constituencies. We caucus for causes and bond with co-belligerents. What we don't do so well is genuine friendship. Because when you pursue friendship for the purpose of power, the power of friendship disappears."

Acrimony on Capitol Hill is not new, but what is new is the lack of collegiality after hours. Harry Truman's famous caution about friendship in Washington ("If you want a friend, get a dog") has become "treat your friends like dogs." Debates move quickly into personal attacks. The mild-mannered Elizabeth Edwards accuses Hillary Clinton of "acting like a man," and the comedy becomes farce when Bill Clinton chivalrously rides to his wife's rescue, telling us that no, she's not like a man. Well, he would know.

Could there have been a dumber "question" than the one posed in a recent presidential debate than when each candidate was instructed to turn left (or was it right?) and say something that he doesn't like about his rival? We act as though we have no common goals.

"Politics ain't beanbag," as Mr. Dooley duly noted, but it doesn't have to be beheadings, either. The friendship that continues between Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg proves it. Justice Scalia, a Catholic and a staunch conservative, and Justice Ginsburg, a Jew and dedicated liberal, are fast friends off the bench, and their families celebrate New Year's Eve together. There can be more to talk about than politics.

John Adams, our second president, and Thomas Jefferson, our third, were serious enemies after John Adams left the White House. But they discovered common affinities in old age and a thriving correspondence on many subjects flourished -- without Apples or BlackBerrys or anything but quill and parchment -- until they died within hours of each other on the Fourth of July. If we tried, most of us wouldn't have to wait that long to make a real friend.