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Friends Indeed?

The one thing he's learned is Friends Next is not enough to sustain relationships. "A lot of friendship is sharing experiences, not necessarily planned. It's people going through the world, negotiating a pathway together."

But Huffman has discovered Friends Next can be a gateway to genuine intimacy.

Recently he organized a ski trip to British Columbia with his core group of buddies, and for the hell of it announced on Facebook that anybody who could read his profile was invited to come along. To his surprise, an acquaintance from Texas took him up on it. Houston-boy started off not knowing anybody else, but intense bonds ensued. "Now he's going with us to Burning Man -- he's become a de facto member of the core group," Huffman says.

The novel ties of Friends Next have caused Huffman to think hard about what the word "friend" means.

"You can maintain a friendship over a distance. Once the person is a friend, it takes very little data to communicate very complex things. You can send a five-word e-mail" that, for someone else, "would take a two-hour conversation."

"A friend," however, he has decided, "is someone who you like a lot who understands you at a pretty deep level."

The Real Thing

So in Friends Next, what matters? Is being good company enough? Is trust a key ingredient? Or loyalty? Or self-sacrifice?

"Go through your phone book, call people and ask them to drive you to the airport," Jay Leno once said. "The ones who will drive you are your true friends. The rest aren't bad people; they're just acquaintances."

"It's the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter," said Marlene Dietrich.

While Facebook will allow you as many as 5,000 "friends," enduring realities impose far more significant limits.

No matter how thick your soup of constant communication, sooner or later you may have to decide who will be your bridesmaid.

No matter how easily you can get Facebook on your iPhone, sooner or later you may have to decide who will be the godfather of your child.

And no matter how extensive your profile, it is certain that someday, someone is going to have to decide who will be your pallbearers.

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