A new social media website wants to encourage us to follow the advice of our friends instead of complete strangers. With perpetual skepticism, sarcasm approaching warning levels, and being named yet again to People Magazine's "Sexiest Curmudgeon of the Year" list, I've somehow accumulated more friends than I really should have. (O.K. so I may have substituted the word "messiest" with "sexiest" in the previous sentence.) And some of my best friends are strangers I have only corresponded with through social media; ones I have never met and not likely I ever will.
If you think about it, you didn't really choose the friends you saw this weekend. More likely, they're your neighbors, your family, work associates, fellow students who sat next to you in Algebra class, or the parents of the other kids on our kid's team. We "promote" these people to friendship status due to their close proximity to our lives, their time served in it, or due to our disillusionment with other friends who we feel should be, well, friendlier.
The Peter Principle is a belief that, in an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, that organization's members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. When applied to friendship its rising beyond the levels of commonality. See, I don't really want to have Peter as my friend. He just sees the photos of my kid everyday on my desk, or lives in the apartment above me, or dropped me off at the mechanics to pick up my car -- well you get the picture. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but we often don't even like our friends. Harsh, I know but we're usually appointed our "real life" friends.
But social media friends are friends we actually select. Earlier I called them "best friends" which was not the right term, but do I know that at times I like them better than some of my "friends by default." I like what they have to say, how they say it, and who they say it about. We have similar politics, senses of humor, sensibilities. We choose to keep in contact rather than be handcuffed by association. We look forward to correspondence rather than feel obliged to respond. Our heartfelt support soothes us emotionally from an emotionless laptop.
This is not about discrediting the importance of friends I've known for years but rather giving more respect to those I've only known virtually. You could make the argument that we only interact with online friends superficially. We see each other through photos at our best and communicate our wittiest thoughts. But yes, at times I do like some of my virtual friends better than my live ones and that's O.K. because those friends by default are like an acquired taste: I wouldn't have chose them but glad I found them. But more importantly, -- online or in person -- real friends are preferable to fake ones, as they're the toughest to find.
Article first published as In Defense of Social Media and Facebook Friends on Technorati.