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A Call For “Friends”

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This is an essay on the meaning of the word “friend.”  It’s not going to be about technology (but it is), it’s not specifically about me (but it is), and it’s not meant to sound whiny or pathetic (but it does.)

I’ve been on Twitter for years.  Like 4 years.  And I’ve got over 2,000 people following me.  Two Thousand People.  That’s more than many small towns.

I’ve been on Facebook, LinkedIn, TripIt, Plaxo, Live Spaces, Google Whatevertheycallit, FourSquare, and just about every other social network for years as well.  (Except for MySpace.  That place just always seemed scummy to me.)  And I’ve got thousands of contacts on those places.  Some people I see regularly, some I’ve never met in person.  But we’re digitally connected in such a way that I have passing knowledge of their interests, their families, their hobbies, and more specifically, “the stuff that’s easy to share.”

I’m not tooting any horns here, I promise. I’m writing about what it means to have friends.  I have this vast wealth of people circled around me at all times, and to be honest, I’ve never felt more alone.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have a wonderful family, and I socialize relatively often (compared to an agoraphobic, for example).  Perhaps I’m just affected by the abundance of television shows that feature three or four couples that do EVERYTHING together.  The women are the best of friends.  The guys seem to have known each other since they were in elementary school.  (I’m looking at you, Perfect Couples, Better With You, Cougar Town, Happy Endings, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Traffic Light, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and my new favorite, The League.)  And every day, they have some new amazing (yet funny) adventure. Together. 

I.  Want.  That.

(No, I’m not so deluded as to think that television is anything like real life.  But relationships are relationships, plain and simple.)

Perhaps it’s also because I have “the luxury” of working from home.  Working from home certainly has its benefits, but there are also consequences.  Access to a refrigerator full of the food you love isn’t exactly a blessing.  At least not for my waistline.  Sitting silently in an office by yourself every day only seems good because you hate the guy you share a cube with.  I truly miss the watercooler conversations, as empty as they may have seemed at the time.  They were connections, and as social networking has shown us, connections are gold.

For every new “friend” I make on Facebook, however, I feel like “friendship” has lost its luster.  I DO want to know about your kids, your latest vacation, and your new found love for the game of golf, but I want to know it because we sat in a sportsbar and watched our favorite team get slaughtered.  Again.  We sat for hours and talked about “stuff.”  Conversations twisted and turned, contained humorous interjections, and perhaps even had an inside joke or two.  Facebook and Twitter are missing that one key component to a REAL friendship, and that’s shared experiences.

Do me a favor…think of your best friend from high school or college.  Now think of an outrageous story that happened to the two of you.  You have that story because you did things TOGETHER.  We don’t do things together on the internet.  Sure, we collaborate, or chat, or reply to email, or even go so far as to play World of Warcraft (or some other game, I suppose), but I still contend that you’re not really doing that “together.”  Never have I told someone about “this hilarious email chain I’ve been a part of”.  I’ve never said “remember when I ousted you as the Mayor of Panera?”  These trivial factoids and photos that we share on the internet do not strong bonds make.

So, if I seem overly forward the next time we talk, and invite you to grab a beer (even though we may have never hung out before), it’s because I’m changing my game.  On the flipside, if I DON’T do these things, don’t take it personally.  In fact, call me out on it.  I love people, and getting to know ANYONE is better than sitting in front of this computer for one more evening.  There’s one thing my mother told me when I was young that has always stuck with me, and it’s only gotten truer with time:

“If you want to do things with your friends, you’re going to have to call them.  Sitting home and waiting for an invitation is NEVER going to happen.”

I’ve been waiting on social networks, and I’ve realized that friendships aren’t made there.  They’re observed.


26 responses to “A Call For “Friends””

  1. Justin Kohnen Avatar

    Well said Jeff. I’m always in for a beer. Next time I see you, I’ll make sure to ask.

  2. Mike Brown Avatar

    My wife has friends from grammar school and I envy that. My oldest friend that I keep in touch with is from college and it’s tough to keep up because of distance and we haven’t seen each other in person in 3 years now. In some ways I can be introverted. But in others I’m very outgoing and a social butterfly.

    Tell you what. I’ll be at Codestock and Devlink this summer and plan to go to CodeMash this winter. I’ll make it a point to grab a beer with you!


  3. David Giard Avatar

    Agreed. Social networking can help to maintain friendships when it’s not possible to make physical contact. But it is no substitute for real human interaction. Ideally, Twitter and Facebook keep the conversation going until we can meet in person.

  4. Andrew Maxey Avatar
    Andrew Maxey

    Very profound and challenging words. You do realize that it’s posts like this that start whole movements, right? You better start working on your book. In the meantime, wanna grab a beer and I’ll help you decide what to title it? (for a modest cut of the royalties, of course) 😉

  5. Alan Stevens Avatar

    I’m currently reading The Luck Factor (http://bit.ly/ga8Zl0), and one of the key principles is to make *and maintain* relationships. Social networks are great for maintaining connections, they occasionally help create connections, but nothing beats pushing beyond your comfort zone, leaving the house and regularly interacting with strangers.


  6. Rich S Avatar

    Interesting thoughts. I relate to the “luxury of working from home” bit. It’s nice once in a while, but I’d much rather prefer an actual community.

    1. Dave Swersky Avatar

      Hear hear, brother. I work from home a lot, and when I am in the office I don’t interact with many people in person. Social networks are good for keeping connections alive, but it’s like interaction tofu. You need facetime to keep a friendship healthy and alive.

      PS- I don’t think you’re diluted. You’re quite concentrated 😉

  7. Seth Petry-Johnson Avatar
    Seth Petry-Johnson

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. My oldest friends aren’t techie people, so as my career advances I have less and less to talk about with them. And while I’ve met tons of techie people through my career, not many have been elevated to actual “friends”.

    Shared interests are at the root of all good friendships, and I know you’re a poker player. What do you think about a monthly game? I’ve got all the supplies, I just lack willing participants….

  8. Olaf Lewitz Avatar

    Do that, my friend.
    It’s a good plan! Leave your comfort (=fridge) zone.
    I’m in for that beer.
    Take care

  9. Joel Cheuoua Avatar

    Thanks a lot for these thoughts. You’re expressing something we’re working on for a while now. It takes a lot to change habits, hopefully we’ll succeed at that.

  10. cz Avatar

    Friendship is sitting under the dryer vent on a patio on a warm summer evening playing Settlers, or walking through downtown Detroit @ 4am with your bros, or playing football in a park on a Saturday morning in New Orleans. Friendship means never having to hide in the
    bathroom of a stadium because you’re afraid the other
    team’s fans are gonna beat you up for wearing a Browns

    1. jeffblankenburg Avatar

      That could not have been said better, Colin. Well played.

  11. John Stockton Avatar
    John Stockton

    I know EXACTLY how you feel. I’ve been working from home pretty much exclusivly for about 7 months now and will sometimes call up coworkers on OCS just to chat.

    Take your situation, throw in moving across the country twice in two years, add in changing companies and a splash of career doubt (OK, that’s always there in all of us) and you’ve got a recipie for why I’ve been a lot quieter online recently.

    One thing I’ve started is to prune my more active social networks (facebook, twitter) to people I actually know and interact with. It doesn’t solve anything but at least I actually care about more of what I’m reading.

    P.S. Most readers of this blog are probably safe from the pruning. At least for now 😉

  12. Aaron Stemen Avatar

    I agree with your view of Facebook “friends”. I get requests a lot from people I didn’t or don’t like.

    If you’re looking to get out more, let me know. Sarah let’s me out in the evenings if I want so I can socialize. She’s. Awesome like that 🙂

  13. Ernie Stormann Avatar
    Ernie Stormann

    I was going to leave a long comment, but instead I’ll buy the first round after the next user group meeting. Comments+beer>comments.

  14. Jay R. Wren Avatar

    I suggest that you consider not working from home. Find a local co-working facility. Drive there and work there 4-5 days a week (less is not enough).

    If there aren’t any co-working facilities around, start one. (yes, i realize this is some work and I’m not sure I’d do it myself)

  15. David Good Avatar
    David Good

    For me,at my age (37) and life status (married w. 7 y/o twin boys), almost all of my real friends I know from my hobbies – competitve shooting and Taekwondo, especially TKD. We automatically have something in common, and with TKD, my friends’ kids are also involved too just like mine. My wife loves hanging with the other wives and moms and my kids have school friends in TKD too. I realize martial arts aren’t for everyone, but the point is having a social-oriented, family-oriented hobby automatically starts you off with a group of like-minded people and that really helps.

    1. jeffblankenburg Avatar

      David, I’m actually an avid golfer (20+ rounds a year), and play competitive volleyball at least one day a week, all year. That being said, I still seem to lack for many true “friends.” This isn’t a pity party for me, though, as much as some insight into my human interactions. I need to be more proactive in getting together with people instead of sitting on the porch feeling sorry for myself that nobody’s calling.

  16. David Lindsley Avatar
    David Lindsley

    There was an article in _Byte_ almost 20 years ago (man I’m old!) on a similar topic. The author noted how homes built (roughly) until the end of WWII had porches in front; newer homes have decks in the back yard (which tends to be surrounded by a privacy fence).
    His point was, it’s nice to be able to use the Internet to connect with people with shared interests. And if you are, say, an opera lover living in a small town that might be your only/main means of communication with your fellow aficionados.
    But there’s a danger of forsaking our real communities for the virtual ones. There’s also a secondary risk that these virtual communities will balkanize (or accelerate the balkanization of) our society(ies).

    I live in the Midwest but grew up on the East Coast. I also have close relatives and friends in Europe. Social media offer a nice way to keep up with my relatives and what they’re doing.
    I was part of a fairly close-knit group of people who were all laid off at about the same time. Again, social media help me keep up with my old friends and colleagues.
    But this is at best relationship “maintenance” … as you note, relationships are not made in cyberspace, but in the real world. Thanks for this.

  17. mgroves Avatar

    As a relatively new remote worker, I find that a lot of community events and dev groups help to make up for the deficit of day-to-day contact. Code & Coffee, CONDG, etc. Plus I have occasional happy hours with former coworkers, so that’s nice too.

  18. Mark Freeman Avatar
    Mark Freeman

    My wife actually *is* agoraphobic so we don’t do much of anything socially as a couple. She socializes with her best friends almost exclusively via Gtalk and Skype, and they are mostly in other countries.

    I too “observe” most of my relationships rather than actively participating in them. My high school friends are mostly 500 miles away and most of the true friends I made since moving to OH have since left the state. I don’t get to travel much. I do have some local friends with whom I socialize, go to concerts and festivals, and game. I don’t drink and don’t care about sports. But I do play Settlers, Pandemic, Ticket To Ride, etc. (You introduced me to Killer Bunnies at the Day of .Net.)

    If you ever want to get a board/card game together, give me a shout. Sometimes profound conversations take place before, after, and even during games…

  19. Tocco Avatar

    We need to buy that lot on Duane Rd.

  20. Greg Finzer Avatar

    Wow, that is really profound Jeff. I think the season of raising kids is a roadblock for getting together. Just this past Friday my wife and I were unable to go out because the normal baby sitter was sick. We hadn’t gone out for two months and it is put off again.

    I learned something huge this past Friday at Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership seminar; the Wheel of Life. Basically you not only need to set Career, Family, and Physical goals, you need to set social goals as well.


    BTW, I would love to do lunch sometime. We can both have salads.


  21. Tim Rayburn Avatar

    I think you’ve hit on something I agree with profoundly. My CEO, Curtis Hite, recently recommended a book to me called The Power of Who, by David Beaudine. This book discusses this exact subject, and talks about how “networking” in the traditional sense is a sham, that it is true friendship, involvement in another person’s life, which truly makes the difference. Can’t recommend the book enough, it has changed how I think about my interactions with other people.

  22. Gayle Avatar

    Thanks for sharing something so personal, Jeff. Very insightful; this post really made me think about some things. A few years ago, I got some good advice: when trying to figure out something you don’t know, try to find ways to relate it to things you do know, and go from there.

    Things change. And if we don’t change and adapt with them, we can stagnate or it can cause harm even. That’s true in business, but I think the idea can be extrapolated to relationships.

    Social networking online is relatively new. I agree with what a lot of commenters in this thread said: essentially that social networking is good for maintaining friendships but not for establishing/deepening them.

    What else is like that, that we already know about? “Work Friends.” I will use the context of consulting as an example since it’s something I know well from when I used to be a consultant myself.

    While placed at client A, I got to know other consultants and employees there very well. But once I was moved on to client B, it’s easy to lose touch with my Work Friends from client A. Twitter can help maintain those relationships but they usually don’t deepen once moving on to another client.

    But how do you get to know your Work Friends so well? You get to know them mostly because of the little things that you learn about people day to day; what they’re going through (big and small), what they like (hobbies, foods), what they do outside of work, etc. [Note: This is what you probably miss most when working from home a lot. But also note: these are the same kinds of things that are shared on Twitter].

    But if the conversation never moves beyond those at-work conversations, our Work Friendships aren’t going to deepen [Likewise if my interaction with someone is only on Twitter, our friendship probably isn’t going to deepen].

    How many former co-workers of yours are now close friends? How did that happen? Usually because you start to hang out outside of work. And why do you hang out outside of work? Probably because during the superficial conversations at work, you realized you had something more in common. So you make that extra effort to do something outside of work. [So what if we think of Twitter this way? If you find out someone on Twitter (friend, acquaintance, or someone you’ve never met) seems interesting or you have something in common, could a DM be in order, to try to move beyond just Twitter?]

    Maybe making plans on Twitter with someone you barely know, or have never met, seems weird. Maybe that needs to not be weird. And maybe that’s where our mindset can change and adapt. I’m not talking about making plans with total strangers; I mean people you follow, have lots of mutual Twitter friends, and you have interacted on Twitter once or twice.

    Is it weird the first time one of your Work Friends invites you to do something outside of work? When I look back, I can recall feeling happy in those situations; flattered that someone wanted to be Friends outside of work. It could be the same good thing the next time one of your Twitter friends asks you to do something offline, couldn’t it? 🙂

    So instead of Twitter becoming something that makes our friendships broader and shallower, maybe we can refactor our thoughts and allow Twitter to be a springboard for deeper relationships that are yet to be.

  23. Dan Avatar

    As far as I’m concerned you have hit the nail on the head here. I struggled to see the value added of social networking like Facebook since it seems to do they exact opposite of what it touts. I signed up late 2009 and before the Summer of 2010 it was gone. I found myself actually engaging my “real life” friends less on the phone and becoming a blurb addict, similar to the Fight Club reference “single serving friend”, where all I was getting was a quick slice of whatever they wanted to share with me, not actually sharing experiences with them.

    One (temporary) up-side to some of this (initially) was re-connecting with old high schools friends I actually gave a damn about, however those re-connections had a honeymoon period where we would talk and talk and talk, phone call here and there, then back into the fold of blurb slices.

    Needless to say I cut the cord on FaceBook cold turkey and never looked back. Unfortunately the dilution of the “real life” friendships continued to be “socially severed” (I’m copyrighting that phrase btw) where I was now dropped out of the fold since everyone else was seemingly in the fold. Akin to FaceBook’s ever-changing security policies I now feel as a though I opted-out in their lives socially since everyone else was still automatically opted-in. Was this my own doing? Yes and no. I made the choice to opt-out, they never made the effort to opt back in.

    I could go on and on about how social networking is actually “social severing” but I’ve said my piece. To answer your call I’m always up for a beer or watching a game, although it will have to be the Phillies or Eagles pounding the Indians or Browns 😉 You know how to get a hold of me.

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