With the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (“CPAC”) about to get underway here in Washington, many of those in attendance will have their first opportunity to meet in real life those whom they have come to know via new media, such as blogging and podcasting, and via social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. No doubt some people will be thrilled to finally meet each other in person, and their shared experiences at the conference will provide them with opportunities to cement their relationships. Others, however, will probably come away disappointed to discover that the person whom they thought they liked is not as interesting or attractive a personality in real life as they are online.
We might make a reasonable observation that two people who have certain interests, views, or background experiences in common are more likely to form a friendship than those who have little or nothing in common. Yet it is true for this scrivener at least that the older one gets the more one comes to realize that commonality is no guarantee of affinity. No doubt many of my readers have had the experience I have, of introducing two of one’s friends to each other for the first time, thinking that they will get along well because they both have the same favorite food, sports team, or film, as well as our friendship in common. And then one is horribly embarrassed to find that, after a few minutes, there is an awkwardness because the two are not really well-suited to one another after all.
The use of new and social media can make things even more of a muddle, because the interaction begins with, and may in many cases always be limited to, words written or spoken on a screen. You may enjoy someone’s tweets about history, or reading someone’s blog posts about cooking, and interacting with them about these things. And over time you may come to think that you have thereby formed a friendship with the author of those tweets or posts. Yet if and when you finally do meet them in person, you may find that although you still like them, there may not be enough of a connection between the two of you to sustain anything more than a warm acquaintanceship, similar to one you might have with a long-standing barber, tailor, or bank manager, which never evolves into an actual friendship.
If the creation of a friendship was an easily predictable phenomenon, akin to the rising of the sun or the phases of the moon, I suspect there would be little or no need for the use of new and social media to reach out and try to make new friendships. If 1+1 always = 2 in this regard, we would simply be able to meet someone for the first time and say, “Because you like the music of Mahler, you must therefore be my friend,” and that would be the end of it. Yet look how often even the most fundamental matters that shape our entire world view – religion, nationality, ethnicity, etc. – are no guarantee that someone will become our friend.
To save everyone a lot of heartache, let us admit to ourselves that we have no idea why some people become our friends, and some do not. There are always people whom we are attracted to, and whom we would like to call our friends, but they for whatever reason do not share that attraction. The reverse can also be true, when we feel put-upon by someone who is trying desperately to become our friend when really we are fine with remaining acquaintances, and are just trying to be polite and not hurt their feelings. And although not the subject of today’s blog post, it goes without saying that when that uneven level of attraction is not one of friendship, but romantic in nature, things can become even more complicated.
These kinds of awkward situations are initially masked in both new and social media, because the online personae we create for ourselves can be as genuine or false, as improved-upon or warts-and-all, as we wish, since in most cases there is little or no chance that we will actually meet the other online person. Those with a more dishonest personality, or some aspect of themselves they feel they have to hide, can take advantage of this situation in a way which they would not be able to do in a dinner party setting, for example, after the wine gets flowing and tongues begin to loosen in conversation. As such, while not discounting the possibility that friendships can be formed from a tweet, or from podcast feedback, or the like, we need to be realistic in our assessment of them as gauges of potential friendship.
Fretting over the uncertainty that is the formation of a friendship is as useless as trying to figure out why one of your children loves broccoli, and the other goes into a screaming fit if you try to make him eat it. Some aspects of human behavior simply have no rational basis of explanation other than the fact that we are all individuals with free will, who can make choices for ourselves that defy expectations. Putting together two people with common interests may lead to the formation of a friendship, but it may not, and the cut-to-the-chase aspect of both new and social media, where we come to believe we actually know someone well whom we have never actually met, can prove to be a great disappointment if not approached with some caution.
So before you spill your guts at CPAC to that person with whom you exchanged online barbs about Newt Gingrich, gentle reader, take a moment to reflect on what you actually know about them. Are you in the process of making a real friend, or are you tying an albatross around your neck which you will come to regret? Friendships rarely form instantaneously, and the possibility of making a friend, rather than an acquaintance, exclusively through the use of media seems to me very remote. While I am a user and advocate of both new and social media, I would urge you not to mistake online relationships for real-life ones, which take much longer to build, and require more than keystrokes.