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Giving up friendship for Lent

Some Ash Wednesday-inspired blogging: At PSFK, Dan Gould points to a few articles (here's one from WSJ, one from CNN, one from Cnet) about people giving up Facebook for Lent. At the very least, this suggests the ambivalence people feel about using the site. They consider it a sort of vice, but worry that they will lose friends if they don't participate in it -- that their social life can't continue normally at this point without Facebook's mediation. (Luckily, there's a support group to help with Facebook withdrawal -- on Facebook.)

What makes Facebook an entirely appropriate thing to give up, aside from its creepy voyeuristic element, is how convenient it makes friendship maintenance feel -- it removes the requirement of attentive presence, of real-time reciprocity. This clearly still feels weird enough to people to seem vaguely sinful, a retreat from real life into an addictive fantasy world. Consider this, from the WSJ story:

Ms. Wentland paused to ponder the point of such ephemeral connections. They were fun, yes, but they took up more time than she cared to calculate. It had been ages since she'd sat on the floor and played trains with her six-year-old son or baked cookies with her three-year-old daughter.

"I have a real life here, with children, a husband and a job. They need my attention and energy," Ms. Wentland says.

But it probably won't feel wrong like that for much longer, as the attitude toward social networks of the tweens and teens now growing up with it becomes the norm. The idea of giving up Facebook for Lent may seem as crazy as giving up friendship itself for Lent a few years from now. (And then we'll know for sure that friendship has become fully integrated into the culture industry-media company-telecom nexus.)

It's worth considering, though, whether it's a good idea to have so much of our personal life and well-being riding on what's a commercial site (one that has yet to turn a profit). In theory, it could simply close down one day and then we'd all be friendless, I suppose. Or we'll have an experience similar to this rather casuistic college student quoted in the WSJ story:

College students who have abstained from Facebook for Lent in recent years say it was brutal, but valuable. Whitley Leiss, now a junior at Texas Christian University, slipped up only once, on her birthday, when she was desperate to see the well-wishes posted for her. She asked a roommate to log into her account and read them aloud while she averted her eyes from the screen. When Lent ended, she logged on to find dozens of messages waiting and strangely little desire to answer them.

"I saw all that I had missed," Ms. Leiss said. "And I realized I hadn't missed anything." She also learned, she says, who her true friends were -- those who would take the radically retro step of calling or emailing to stay in touch.

As much as I sympathize with the idea that "true friends" transcend Facebook, it seems an arbitrary distinction. There's something unfriendly-like about making everyone else accommodate one's own self-imposed restriction. Imagine if she decided not to answer the phone for Lent, and then waited for her true friends to come knocking on her door. Facebook is just a means of communication, albeit an insidious and totalizing one that aims to conform the nature of friendship to suit its commercial purposes. But it wouldn't have any traction if people didn't want some measure of that conforming to take place. We want a kind of rolling yearbook for our lives, and a central dumping ground for our life updates so everyone can see them if they choose, but we don't necessarily want our friend network being leveraged as a means for targeting ads at us and our loved ones, or being strip-mined for entertaining reality-entertainment content that makes a profit for someone else. (Whether social networks can exist without promoting the temptation to manage friends like one would a iTunes playlist is another question.) Perhaps a more sophisticated, noncommercial social network will come into being that will enable us to extract the useful features of Facebook from the invasive, controlling, reifying, commercializing aspects. And then no one would ever even think to give it up this new service for Lent.

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