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A Friend Indeed -- Social Network Friendships Are No Substitute for the Real Thing

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I'm the annoying friend who pesters other friends to get together in person. It's difficult. It's practically a secondary career for which I've developed strategies, persistence, long-term goals. Twenty-four years after college, I still miss the dining hall, where glorious hours could be spent blowing off ten-page papers to argue about politics, religion, the latest film or juicy piece of gossip. I have a friend I've known since junior high school -- she moved to California when I was 16, and we exchanged letters every month for quite a while. I still have them all. She has lived in Newport Beach, and I 40 minutes north in Los Angeles, for over 20 years. We've seen each other once.

It requires Herculean effort and persistence to get together with friends these days, against an endless sea of quotidian conflicts. And why bother, when Facebook makes the substitute so easy? But occasionally, success! A couple years ago I found myself texting my friend Jeff, while driving, to confirm coffee was still on. (Immediately I marveled at how reflexively I'd managed to choose simultaneously the most dangerous and the least personal means to communicate.) How long had it been? I searched my online calendar for his name, and sure enough, there it was: four years ago, to the day. Too good.

We both shook our heads -- how had the time for an entire university education flown by, while we had settled for commenting on each other's Facebook posts? Hey, a new baby! Click "Like," and the celebration is done. A new job! Click "Like," and the congratulations are over. I haven't received a personal letter in years. The form has become a relic. I teach acting at The Beverly Hills Playhouse, and try emphatically to encourage students to communicate with people in the business by hand-written cards, not by emails or text or Twitter or Facebook.

Social media has destroyed reunions. I attended my high school 20th several years ago, and in addition to the challenge of associating the faces and bodies that had changed with the years to names that were fluent from Grades 1-12, there was also the uncomfortable realization that I often already knew what many of these people had been up to. That first level of conversation with an old friend, the "what's new" phase that greases the wheels for more in-depth topics, had been removed from the equation: "Wow, hey, look at you! Listen, I'm so happy/sorry to hear about..."

Back to Jeff: A fascinating 90 minutes passed, where we rediscovered more than a bit about why we were friends, if we were in fact still friends, and how the casual social media banter can make it seem as if we're in touch and connected, when in fact we're not -- not in the slightest. He had gone through a divorce, my daughter had been born, we fought about politics as usual, but at moments it seemed as if we'd lost the easy humor with which we'd engaged before. Why? Had our early 40s "we're men now" maturity made us more certain of who we were, less in need of others' approval? Or were we just more calcified and inflexible to different points of view? Frankly, at times, the friendship seemed expired, and I know we both shared the unspoken question, "Is this the last time I'm going to see this person?" Over time, I have developed the ability to sense this depressing occasion in the moment. So easy, to block someone from your Newsfeed, so much tougher to contemplate not seeing the person in front of you again.

I noted to Jeff that we had on our hands a decent dramatic premise: A single conversation between two old friends who hadn't seen each other in quite some time -- rehashing history, divulging secrets. There would the challenge of creating a single conversation that would be engaging for 80 minutes or so. Driving around LA these days, I've noticed I no longer can tell the difference between posters for movies, video games and amusement park rides, and here could be a small antidote to the ever-increasing hyper-adrenalization of American storytelling: A conversation, and nothing more. And thus, my play "Years To The Day" was born. Jeff fortunately remains a good friend, and, as a first-rate actor, ended up playing the role of the entirely fictionalized 'Jeff' in the play, which has now been performed in LA, Paris, New York, and is scheduled for Edinburgh, San Francisco and Athens still in 2014. These in-person get-togethers can yield some wondrous, unexpected results. They're worth the effort.

Allen Barton's play YEARS TO THE DAY, performs daily at The Pleasance Courtyard Edinburgh at 13.50 from July 30 to August 24 as part of The Edinburgh Fringe

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