Friends Indeed?

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Shadee Malaklou has lots of friends. A whole lot -- 1,295, according to her latest Facebook count. But whom exactly can she count on?

Malaklou, 22, acknowledges that if she ran into some of her "friends" on the street, she might not remember their names. When she went to Duke, where "I was quote unquote popular," social life was so competitive that sometimes invitations were based only on online determinations of how hot a person was, and whether her "friends" were cool.

Now that she is working at a Washington nonprofit, Malaklou is planning on pruning her "friends" as a rite of spring cleaning, defriending people who have come to mean little to her.

She does stay Facebook friends, however, with professors who might be good for letters of recommendation to graduate school. "The biggest value-added is that it helps maintain relationships -- somewhat superficial but not worth getting rid of," she says.

The word "friend" has long covered a broad range of relationships -- roommates, army buddies, pals from the last law firm, old neighbors, teammates, people you used to smoke dope with in back of your high school, people you see once a year at the Gold Cup, scuba instructors and carpool members, along with fellow gun collectors, Britney fans and cancer victims. The Oxford English Dictionary traces "freondum" back to "Beowulf" in 1018, and "to be frended" to 1387.

But MySpace and all the hundreds of other social networking Web sites, from Flickr to Twitter to Bebo, have caused us to think afresh about the boundaries and intensities of these relationships.

Never before in history has it been so easy to keep up with so many people with whom you otherwise would have lost contact. These new electronic meshes are more than mere improvements over alumni magazines, holiday cards with pictures of families and those horrible letters about their lives, Rolodexes, yearbooks, organizational newsletters, and birth and death notices in the newspaper.

Summer friendships, for example, have been transformed. The ritual of meeting again at the beach after a long winter was once marked by hours of catching up. Not today. Networked people who haven't seen each other in forever already know about the new boyfriend, and what happened to the old one -- in very great detail. They also know about the old school and the new job. They have known, every day, no matter where in the world they roamed, the instant that emotional change occurred. Now, after the initial squeals and swaying hugs, conversations pick up in mid-sentence. It's a mind-meld uncanny to watch.

This is a world of "participatory surveillance," says Anders Albrechtslund of Denmark's Aalborg University in the online journal First Monday.

Real online friends watch over each other -- mutually, voluntarily and enthusiastically, in ways that can be endearing.

Others have referred to it as "empowering exhibitionism," Albrechtslund says.

Call it Friends Next.

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