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Are Facebook Friends Real?

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When E.M. Forster wrote the famous line in Howards End, "Only connect," I wonder if he could have envisioned the phenomenon of Facebook.

woman using laptop computer

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Like most of you, when I first logged onto the site, I felt nervous. This was a new social world with blurry rules of conduct. The lack of boundaries and potential for social and business gaffs was intimidating. The instant access to and from people who crossed our paths in a station of life where we no longer reside, was a strange event. (Yes, I have received some sheepish apologies and sent some myself.)

I'd always mistrusted technology. It felt like a detached form of communication. What with the time lag, the lack of voice tone and body language, who could really know what was being said, anyway? Add to that the mass distribution of personal blurbs, and this whole thing felt inauthentic. Were we all just narcissists jumping on our own soapbox looking for our 15 minutes in our small pond? And what of those whose ponds had become lakes and oceans -- the non-celebrity Facebook users who have thousands of "friends"? How could that be a connection? E.M. Forster also wrote this in Howards End: "I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them."

I watched my news feed for weeks, frozen with thoughts of how and why.

Then I jumped in. Gingerly, at first. A few personal status reports. Then the creation of a separate Facebook page to bring my brand into the social networking world. Yes, I admit, it was commercial motivations that helped me see the light.

Then events started to take place in my life and I realized that I had been wrong about Facebook. It is a huge way to connect in a real way, about real stuff.

First, I was at a real-world party and I saw Linda Thompson, a woman I have known briefly in the early 90s when I interviewed an Academy Award winner and her then-husband. Back then, we had connected over a shared interest in helping disadvantaged youth. But the overlap in our lives was not large enough, and we soon swam away into our different parts of the ocean. Almost two decades later, I would never have approached her to say hello at the party, except that we had become Facebook friends and I wanted to compliment her on the promotion she does for her son and his TV show. Now, when she posts things along the lines of: Brody Jenner had recently felt lonely in a Toronto hotel room and caught a commercial for a non-profit dedicated to kids in Africa and immediately called to donate money, I feel connected. I know where his heart is, for I once witnessed his mother's heart. And my feelings were not inauthentic.

Sometimes Facebook feels like a friendly connection that transforms our anonymous city into a village. Yesterday morning, I read a post from John Fanaris, a father at my children's school. John is a big wine guy with a cellar I am completely envious of. His wife, Noelle, is a super chef, so I am doubly envious. John had posted a status report that he would be dining with friends who were also big wine and food enthusiasts, and asked his Facebook friends for suggestions of what to uncork that evening. Later that afternoon, I was sitting alone in an outdoor cafe, coincidentally reading Food & Wine magazine, and I heard my name called out. I looked up to see the entire Fanaris family trotting in from the beach. I waved and said, "Have you decided on which wine yet, John?" A Facebook conversation had moved seamlessly into the real world, sans a time lag.

Sometimes Facebook is a practical connection. A virtual parent. One day when I couldn't reach my 11-year-old daughter on her cell phone, I sent her a Facebook status report because I had an intuition she was "Facebooking" on her iPod. She got back to me quickly.

At other times, Facebook is a tragic connection. A few months ago, a former co-worker from KCOP Channel 13 in Los Angeles, Lisa Sanders, had "friended" me. We exchanged a few nice reconnection e-mails. She complimented me on my growing, healthy kids. We asked about other mutual co-workers. Then last week, Lisa suddenly died of a stroke. I would never have known that, had I not been on Facebook. News of her funeral was posted on her page. Her wall is now filled with touching goodbyes from all her friends, including me. Her Facebook page has become an electronic monument to a sweet woman who died too soon. And the tears that swelled in my eyes when I read the news on Facebook were real.

So, I take it back. Facebook is an addicting addition to all our human connections. We seek out the comfort of another's company and empathy to stave off loneliness. We do it in the real world with our lovers and families, and we do it electronically because it feels good to be seen and heard, and to know that we can be a part of the lives of so many.

"One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life." -- E.M. Forster

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10 comments so far | Post a comment now
C August 8, 2009, 8:12 PM

I think online friends are as real as you make them. Some are, some aren’t, just like in “real life.”

Debra Snell August 9, 2009, 12:58 PM

Dr. Wendy Walsh was very insiteful in this Facebook article. I was also very sceptical at first, but all the elements that Dr. Walsh touched on have been true for me as well. I just got in touch with a friend I’ve been trying to find for ten years. I look forward to reading more from Dr. Wendy

A Farker August 9, 2009, 5:19 PM

Welcome to Fark

Not a Mom August 9, 2009, 9:43 PM

This article is utter trash. Your desperate attempt to fill your ignorant vapid life with these laughable self-serving tidbits would be rejected from “”. Your 1700s-era fear of technology coupled with your ignorance of basic human tenets should embarrass you to the point you never present yourself as anything but a worthless old out-of-touch coot again. Did you buy your PhD online? Addicting isn’t a word. Someone specializing in communication might not abuse such recent internet-created colloquialisms. If this is what even the worst moms are like, that explains why the world is such a terrible place.

Mike August 10, 2009, 7:19 AM

incredibly insightful and interesting.

absolutely no one.

Hoit August 10, 2009, 8:50 AM

Hey guys, have you heard about these things called computers? THEY SURE ARE SCARY!

dongolor August 10, 2009, 2:55 PM

Facebooking on her iPod? Really?

You have absolutely no clue, do you?

passing by August 10, 2009, 10:01 PM

Please fire this woman immediately. You can’t be considered a successful website if you continue hiring people writing articles on things they don’t know anything about.

just this guy, you know? August 11, 2009, 8:44 AM

This was a mildly interesting article until the aforementioned line about “Facebooking” on her iPod. I’m afraid you’ve lost all credibility because of it. You don’t need to have a doctorate to understand new things that are based on computers or the internet. It just takes the smallest amount of genuine interest. It’s obvious that you are more interested in appearing hip than exploring a new type of social medium.

Just sayin... August 11, 2009, 2:05 PM

You can Facebook on an iPod Touch…

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