These ARE My Real Friends

June 1, 2021 § 23 Comments

I’ve always had a simple test to show if someone is my “real” friend: Would I drive across state lines in the middle of the night to bail them out of jail?

Now that I live in an absolute monarchy where I’m not even sure if bail is a thing, the equation is a little more complicated. I’ve also spent the past ten years actively making more virtual friends—reviewing books, sharing publishing information, commenting on posts, boosting tweets. That’s a lot more bond money at stake.

But Allison, you say, wary of the reduction of the sacred bond of friendship to an automated heart, How can you be “friends” with people you’ve never met? Social media isn’t real friendship. Acquaintances, maybe. But friends? I mean, would you really even recognize half your Instagram following if you saw them on the street?

Nope. But I’d recognize the people I follow back. Or the hundred or so who turn up at biweekly Writer’s Bridge events, or the twenty or so who come to weekly co-writing events, or the fifteen in my most active comment pod.

O philoi, oudeis philos, exclaimed Artistotle, often translated as, “O my friends, there is no friend”; at once a recognition and a denial. If we have many friends, have we any? Those we deem intimate, we grant power. Here is my secret—destroy me if you will, or as Derrida writes in The Politics of Friendship, “No friend without the possibility of wound.” How many people can we trust to hold the knife?

In the late 1940s, psychologist Leon Festinger led a study investigating the role of physical space in friendship formation. The scientists’ theory: “Friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home, or walking about the neighborhood.” It wasn’t attitude or commonalities that made friends, they found, but proximity. Their study of MIT student housing showed that the most popular residents weren’t the most likeable—they were the people who lived at the bottom of the staircase everyone used to get in and out of the building. Proximity made them more likely to meet more people, giving them a larger chance of connecting. In the 1990s, Steve Jobs redesigned the Pixar offices to put engineers, animators and executives all in one building to create Pixar’s famously collaborative space. Google puts every worker no more than “150 feet from food” so everyone will “casually collide” for “unplanned collaborations.”

These casual collisions are why most of us make our last serious friendships in college: we have proximity to our classmates, with whom we frequently collide, as well as being assigned to work with people we might not have chosen. We’re more codependent: we need a ride to the store, or quarters for the laundry, and there’s no shame in asking, or in saying, “Sorry dude, can’t today.” Common areas abound, places specifically designed to read or talk or think or lie in the sun with a book until someone walks up to say, “Whatcha reading?”

Social media and virtual events recreate the college experience. Paradoxically, living thousands of miles from most of my friends while unable to travel for over a year has built more connections than ever. I spend more time on Twitter and in Facebook groups. I co-invented a biweekly gathering where writers discuss a common topic, have small-group breakouts (Surprise! You’re gonna talk to someone new!), and the chat is alive with personal side-conversations. I’m a member of Instagram comment pods where I’m required to engage…while I grow to like people for who they are.

I don’t have to schedule time for most of these interactions—I don’t even have to agree in advance. Interaction happens when I choose to be in the virtual space. Acquaintanceship grows into intimacy through repetition. Welcome to the Writer’s Bridge, love your haircut! I saw your fabulous essay on Facebook! Your new baby is beautiful on Instagram! I have an answer to that publishing question you Tweeted!

Frequent. Spontaneous. Contact.

Am I in a bad mood? Fine, not commenting on your post right now. Am I in a great mood? Let me drop into a few Facebook groups and share information. Not every person will love me…but as we all survive publishing together, the opportunities are there to develop real friendship.

Early one morning, Wittman Ah, the artist protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, acknowledges “the winners of the party”—not a chosen social group, but the last stragglers of an all-night acid trip, emerging to share the dawn. Strangers thrown together by happenstance and a deeply emotional journey through a common experience. “It’s very good sitting here among friends, coffee cup warm in hands, cigarette,” he thinks. “Good show, gods.”

It might not be practical for me to post my Twitter mutuals’ bail, but I can sure help them promote their book, celebrate success, lick the wounds of failure, brainstorm solutions, provide resources for their current problem, or just plain enjoy their company.

You know, like friends.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to spontaneously connect? She’s leading a webinar for Creative Nonfiction Magazine June 16—come be a new friend! Register here: Writing Powerful Sentences: Going Beyond Grammar.

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