Almost 30 years ago, the Special A.K.A. released "Racist Friend," drawing a clear line in the sand: "if you have a racist friend/ now is the time for that friendship to end." Whether that friend is your sister, brother, father or your mother, the song insisted, there can be no compromise, no meeting of the minds, no friendship with a racist. In 1983, I had just graduated from high school and was packing for college, leaving behind a lifetime of friends in Brooklyn for a very different community in western Massachusetts. The song for me served as an occasion to make concrete my core principles that would help guide, as I moved into adulthood, my choice of friends.
Yet today I look at my list of friends on Facebook, and I cannot help but wonder how many times I have let my guard down. How many of the scores of people publicly advertised as my "friends" -- some of whom I have never met and at least a handful of whom I wouldn't know if they introduced themselves to me -- embrace values that would deny them my friendship in the "real world."
Every citizen over the age of 18 has (or should have) an articulate list of conditions for friendship -- conditions which if not met would lead to an irrevocable break (be it your sister or your father or your mother). One would still remain a brother or a son, just not a friend. One would still be a neighbor by the coincidence of physical proximity, a co-worker due to the accident of shared employment -- even a collaborator in a shared cause. These are all worthy titles and spaces where meaningful relations and discourse are possible. But these are not categories that make one friends.
But Facebook is not the real world, one might rightly protest. And we all understand the word "friend" to be used here in the loosest sense. We have true friends, likely no more than a dozen, and then we have the "friends" we accrue on Facebook. The disparity between those numbers surely shelters true friendship from being confused with the Facebook variety.
That, at least, is what I told myself since joining Facebook over five years ago, during which time the number of true friends in my life has remained small and focused while the number of "friends" I claim on Facebook has grown logarithmically. But eventually there comes a day when it becomes more than just a difference best acknowledged by scare-quotes and a wink. In my case, the vote in North Carolina this week made me realize once and for all that there are, for me at least, real ethical consequences for turning friends into "friends."
There is a lot to be frustrated with about Facebook, but perhaps its greatest sin is the diminishment of "friendship" into a watery mush that serves to efface the first principles we should be guarding with our very lives. If everyone is your friend, then no one is. And if no one is your friend, then denying them civil rights is so much easier to do: i.e. when someone says "some of my best 'friends' are gay, so I can't be homophobic; I just don't want them getting married, or visiting each other in the hospital; holding hands in public -- or in any way making a spectacle of themselves in the physical world. Really, can't we all just be 'friends?'"
No. No, we can't. And for those who would insist that the kind of lines-in-the-sand I am articulating as the conditions of friendship is precisely what is wrong with the political discourse in this country, let me ask you: in the decade since Facebook and its now forgotten ancestors have existed, encouraging us all to just be "friends," has our political discourse become more tolerant, open and thoughtful? Of course it has not, and Facebook, with its erosion of the very foundations of our most vital and nourishing human relationships, has everything to do with that fact.
Facebook will be going public later this month, with a self-proclaimed valuation of $100 billion, and its primary business model depends on encouraging us to connect to as many "friends" as is humanly possible. For Facebook, "friendships" are niche communities to sell to advertisers eager to target ever more precise slivers of the Internet's vast sea of eyeballs. In its IPO prospectus, Facebook tells us that sharing with friends "creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives." This all sounds well and good until one sees how the company visualizes the social network Facebook has forged: a virtual planet of interconnected individuals and global corporations (including three of the Bix Six--Disney, Time Warner, and Comcast fueling and being fueled by two producers of caffeinated beverages). This is what friendship (and "diverse perspectives") means to Facebook: our "friendships" are what they sell to advertisers, promising that we will keep our interests actively flowing through global media and its advertisers. Corporations are people too, my friends; and your friends can be (should be) corporations.
Facebook knows it is only a matter of time before we start forgetting to put the scare-quotes around "friend." They encourage us with every connection to dilute the meaning of friendship, and with it the belief in the value of those principles that first defined us as ethical individuals in the world and guided us in making choices as to whom to trust with our secrets, our hopes, and our values.
But, no, I am not leaving Facebook, precisely because I have made some very meaningful friends through that space. But I am posting to my profile a statement of my conditions of friendship in an attempt to restore the meaning of friendship in my own life to something like where it was in 1983 when the Special A.K.A. taught me the responsibilities that come with calling someone by that name. Below is what I am posting to my profile, and I call on others to make their own declaration in order to recover friendship as something more than a marketing niche. I encourage my friends, my "friends" and all Friends® to pause and reflect on their own first principles. I promise, if I cross the line on any of yours, I will unfriend you, just as I ask you to do for me.
Let's make our Facebook "friends" list look a bit more like our friendships in the "real world" -- and if we happen to make it a bit harder for Facebook to market our friendships to corporate investors, so be it. That, of course, is unlikely. But at least we will once again know who our friends are.
Principles of Friendship
If you are against marriage equality, if you pray your child does not grow up to be gay, or if you question the fitness or the right of a LGBT citizen to teach your child, serve in the armed forces, govern the nation, or make out in public -- now is the time to say goodbye. If you believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation; if sitting next to a Muslim on a plane makes you anxious; if the prospect of a coming America in which whites are no longer in the majority makes you shudder; if you believe climate change is a myth, that evolution is not science, that Obama is a "socialist," or that Jews control the media, now is the time for our friendship to end. And if I offend you when I say, and I will, that the Second Amendment proves that the "founding fathers" were fallible, and the "Three-Fifths Compromise" proves that they were racists, and that both together prove that our union was founded on imperfect foundations and is therefore in need of constant revision and improvement if it is ever to achieve the perfection it so often claims for itself -- well, let us go back to being neighbors, coworkers, or even strangers.
Unfriend me, please. Don't worry, I won't be offended. After all, it's not me. And it's not you. It's Facebook.
Follow Jared Gardner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/guttergeek