Popular Culture  •  August 29, 2017

How Facebook Friends Can Be Better Than Real-Life Friends

These days, it is common to hear people lamenting about the fact that they no longer see certain people in person because they keep up with each other on Facebook. Although I don’t have data to back this up, I think it is true that we are not motivated enough to see certain people because we are not curious about what is going on in their lives (because we already know through Facebook). Looking back at my social calendar, I see that people I met in person were those who are not active on Facebook or don’t even have Facebook accounts. The reason in retrospect is obvious; it’s because meeting in person was the only way to catch up with what’s going on in our lives.

There are also people I met because the real-life versions of them are quite different from the Facebook versions. It’s sort of like the difference between live and recorded music. Some bands offer nothing more at live shows, while others offer unique experiences. Both live and recorded have pros and cons. Neither is superior to the other. Recorded music is better in that you get to hear perfect performances. Writing on Facebook is the same way; people think more carefully before saying anything. Live music is better in that it can offer much more than the sound, and the performers can spontaneously interact with the audience.

So, another way to ask my question is: Is it wrong to prefer the Facebook version of someone? Or, should liking someone in real life be the ultimate arbiter of who is your friend and who is not?

Let me give you some examples to consider. These are archetypal people you would probably know.

Some people are bad listeners. They don’t let you talk. They interrupt everything you say. On Facebook, they can’t stop you from saying something. So, you can finally have a real two-way conversation with them. Facebook effectively removes their jarring habit in real life and makes them more pleasant and interesting to chat with.

Some people are oblivious to the fact that you are not interested in what they are talking about. They just go on and on while you are bored to death. Because you don’t want to be rude, you keep nodding like you are still listening. On Facebook, there is no need to do this; you can just cherry pick or skip to the parts you are interested in. It’s like the difference between going to see a movie in a theater and watching it at home. At home, you can pause, rewind and fast forward.

Some people always need to be in a spotlight and dominate the conversation. This is different from the type above. These narcissistic people are perfectly aware that they are dominating, in fact, they are deliberately trying to dominate the conversation. But to their credit, they do tend to be amusing and entertaining. Our frustration again is that it’s not a dialogue but a monologue. So, if they are active on Facebook, it’s better for us to read their posts at our convenience. If they have a YouTube channel, that would be even better.

These people are more likable on Facebook than in real life because Facebook removes the traits you find jarring.

Another common problem with real-life socializing is that some people come as a package, like their significant other and children. Some also dislike one-on-one conversations.

You probably have some friends who married or started dating someone you don’t like, who don’t socialize independently. The joy of seeing your friend is canceled out by your annoyance with his/her significant other. So, you no longer see them or see them much less. On Facebook, you can entirely bypass their significant other.

Also, in a party of three or more, everyone has to find the lowest common denominator to talk about in order to be inclusive, which leads to less interesting conversations, especially if they don’t share much in common. On Facebook, you can have individual conversations even if the particular thread involves many other people.

People who do not have children often stop seeing their friends once they have children. This is because it’s frustrating to have adult conversations when kids are running around and interrupting you every five minutes. As someone who does not have a child, there is no incentive for you to put up with it. You might even get dragged into watching their kids. If you happen to love children, that’s not a problem, but otherwise, it’s not fair. On Facebook, there are no kids. The problem isn’t with your friends or their kids; the combination of them makes face-to-face meetings unpleasant.

Another factor is how each person relates to a particular medium. Writing tends to bring out different aspects of a person. The tone, topic, attitude, and style can be dramatically different. Sometimes we read someone’s Facebook posts and think, “Wow. I had no idea she thinks about this sort of things.” Sometimes you don’t like that version while other times you like that version better than the real-life version.

My own problem in real life is that my interests are quite narrow and deep. Without a certain degree of analytical depth, I find the conversation boring and painful. Because of this, I rarely come across people in real life with whom I can have an interesting conversation. I used to blame myself for this and tried to force myself to conform to the norm, which meant that I was always suppressing what I really wanted to talk about, and was constantly worried about figuring out what other people found interesting. Naturally, when you are self-conscious in this way, you lack spontaneity and become socially awkward.

But if I were surrounded by people who share the same interest, I have no problem engaging in a lively conversation with many people. The problem is not the lack of social skills as commonly assumed about people like me. If the table were turned where the majority at the table were interested in analytical discussions, the minority would be deemed socially inept. Only a very small percentage of people can flawlessly transition from one to the other (e.g. Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers).

Recently I noticed that I was feeling increasingly bitter towards the people I was trying to conform to. Apparently, all these years of repressing my true feelings have taken their toll on my psyche. Even though I have made so much effort trying to be considerate of what other people found interesting, they have never reciprocated. In fact, they think their conversations are superior and roll their eyes about the type of conversations I’m interested in. The bitterness grew to such an extent that I was like, “Wait, why am I doing this?”

So, I don’t try to conform anymore. I don’t socialize with them anymore. This prevents me from feeling bitter towards them. It’s better for everyone. The fact that I don’t socialize with them does not mean that I hate them. I can still enjoy seeing their Facebook posts as long as I don’t need to join their conversations or conform to what they think is interesting.

I don’t know why I didn’t stand up for myself earlier. What was I expecting? Even if these people said to me, “OK, it’s Dyske’s turn. Let’s talk about what he wants to talk about.” Would this work? No. Because then they wouldn’t be themselves. They would be acting like me, which is exactly what I was doing in reverse; I was trying to act like them. Of course, it won’t work, and they wouldn’t enjoy having me in their conversations. The moral of the story is: Don’t force yourself to get along with anyone. And, don’t force anyone to get along with you. If the relationship doesn’t work out in one medium, perhaps it will in another. Don’t take it personally. Let it be.

I often come across people in real life where they tell me, “Oh, I read your latest essay. It was interesting,” and I’m surprised because I had no idea that they were even remotely interested in what I had to say. They’ve never shown any interest in talking about such subjects or even indicated it through Facebook comments or Likes. They are invisible lurkers. But I know that they wouldn’t be interested in having a conversation about it in real life because they are not the type. They are essentially my “read-only” friends. And, that’s OK, or even great.

I think part of the reason why the difference in interest becomes a significant problem is because you are expected to respond. Some people I know hate the fact that I write long emails. Some of them have told me to stop writing such long emails. But they don’t mind reading my essays. Why? Because my essays are not addressed to anyone personally. When they complained to me, I realized that it’s the pressure to respond that many people find intolerable, and that includes me also. I don’t mind just listening to other people chat but in a social situation, I’m pressured to join the conversation and respond, otherwise I would be accused of being antisocial. Some people will eventually say, “What’s the matter Dyske? You haven’t said a word. Are you OK?” which I’ve always hated because it puts me under a spotlight and shames me for being antisocial. On Facebook, I can just listen to their conversations without this pressure to respond. One of the advantages of social media, therefore, is that you can defuse the pressure to respond. When you post something, you are not pressuring anyone in particular to respond. Only those who feel like responding respond.

In real life, if I tried to force others to have a type of conversation I’d like to have, they would be annoyed, partly because they wouldn’t know how to respond. They would have to work so hard to understand what I’m saying and to formulate what to say in response that it would no longer be enjoyable for them. I understand that because I was in the same predicament all my life.

My conclusion here is that we should not expect people to behave consistently across different mediums. If you prefer one mode of socializing with certain people over another, that’s perfectly reasonable. The more options simply mean more ways we can relate to different people. Real life is just one of many mediums available to us and is not necessarily superior to the others.