Why can’t we be friends?

“We are reckless in our use of the lovely word, friend.” –Romain Rolland

If he were alive today, I wonder what Mr. Rolland, a French journalist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, would think about Facebook and its use of the word “friend.”

How many “friends” do you have?

According to the most recent stats on my Facebook page, I have 285 friends.

That’s a lot of friends . . . or is it?

Without friends no one would choose to live, even if he had all other goods,” wrote Aristotle…but what did he know? I tried following him on Twitter, but I kept getting tweets back from Ashton Kutcher.

So, how do you define the word friend?

Personally, I have one simple criterion for the people I describe as my “friends,” and there are only four people who fit into this category, if we exclude relatives.

A friend is someone you can call at 2:34 a.m., and then ask them to drive 16 miles to post bail so that you don’t have to spend the rest of the night in the county lock-up.

With a real “friend” you can do this even when you are slightly intoxicated and can’t quite remember how you got to jail in the first place.

I have to stay out of trouble because of my four “real friends” one lives in Nashville; another lives in Eugene, Oregon. The other two both live in Maine, but one of them has young children; and the other is a very sound sleeper.

But considering the onslaught of social media networking and its impact on my professional life, my definition of the word friend seems quaint, if not entirely useless in the digital age that brought us both Farmville and the word “un-friend” simultaneously.

If you think social media is just a fad or something that can be ignored by those of us who have moved beyond repeated bouts of acne and anxiety about our SAT scores, think again. In fact, check this link.

Like it or not, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become an essential part of our modern communication infrastructure. Every presidential campaign in 2012 will use all three of these platforms. Nearly every bank in Maine has a Facebook page and you can even let the whole world know what brand of whipped cream you prefer by clicking “Like” on the Cool Whip page.

I don’t mind Facebook, but it can become a time vacuum and very labor intensive if you are managing a page or multiple pages as part of an integrated communications strategy.

It’s just the casual use of the word friend that I find offensive.

Furthermore, it seems that some people are a bit less discriminating when it comes to choosing their friends.

As an experiment, I created a fictitious Facebook account. My alter ego was a woman in her mid 30s and she set about finding “friends.” It took less than 48 hours for this non-existent person to rack up more than 75 friends, including two U.S. senators, four television news reporters, three newspaper reporters and seven state legislators.

More disturbing: A recent poll showed that more than 80 percent of people in Maine still receive their news across traditional platforms, such as newspapers, television shows and radio broadcasts. But the media and the small number of policy leaders who chart local, state and national policy are all sharing Tweets and checking their Facebook pages on a regular basis. They are “in the loop,” while the other 80 percent of residents are not.

Thus, you’re nobody until somebody “Likes” you.

But what is the value of more than four or five friends?

Could you really handle having several hundred friends?

Seriously. Think about it. You would spend the rest of your days attending funerals, weddings and anniversary parties. Your Christmas shopping list would need to be underwritten by Goldman-Sachs. You would never get a good night’s sleep nor have a moment when you could just relax.

Unfortunately, the number of friends on a Facebook page has become a quantitative measure of modern-day success; a metrics of accountability and an insatiable need to be more connected while isolated in front of a computer screen.

Check your friends list. How many of them would take a call from you at 2:30 a.m.? If your answer exceeds the number 2, congratulations. You are luckier than you can imagine.

The rest is just an illusion. . .sort of like Farmville.

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