You have probably learned by now that a Facebook friend is not a real friend. Sure, you are Facebook friends with some of your real friends, but the principle does not work in reverse: one is not a real friend simply by virtue of being a Facebook friend.
I recently had my high school crush Facebook friend-request me, and I thought, "Gee, he still remembers me! And he wants to be my friend!" About a month later, I ran into him on the street and was forced to acknowledge his utter indifference to my existence. Not only that, but when I referred to the details of his life I had garnered from his Profile ("So, you're working on another novel?"), he seemed bewildered that I had access to this information, as if I had been stalking him since high school. But what about those back-and-forths on our Facebook Walls? And wasn't he the one who friend-requested me?
Another Facebook friend request came from a man I didn't know. This happens all the time, bewilderingly, and I normally just ignore it. But the name sounded familiar, and I soon figured out he was married to someone I knew casually. I ignored the request, but a couple weeks later, I ran into the two of them on the street. She and I were glad to see each other, but he looked at me like a total stranger (which, incidentally, I was) and shook hands. "But," I wanted to shout, "Don't you know who I am? You friend-requested me!"
Other shadowy figures from my past who would never normally lift a finger to keep me in their lives have also sent requests. Girls I went to summer camp with 20 years ago, people I met at other people's weddings, college acquaintances who were the outermost satellites in my social universe. These are people who would not in a million years invite me to their weddings, call me if they were in town, or have probably ever stopped to wonder how I was. But now our lives are cozily entwined through the magic of Facebook.
So what, I have been wondering, is Facebook friendship really worth?
Some people, obviously, are friend whores. Or, to put it more politely, friend hoarders. They collect friends like stamps. It's unclear what exactly it signifies, but it's some kind of mass social validation. The more friends you have, the greater your personal worth.
For some it is simply the gossip factor, which is a huge part of the Facebook appeal. Reading profiles and looking at photo albums provides the same dirty pleasure as watching reality television, except it is slightly more interesting because you actually know the people.
But I also think that beyond these petty purposes, most people have their Facebook hearts in the right place. They may have no intention of ever being real friends with their Facebook friends (the ones they are not real friends with already), but the site allows them to make gestures of acknowledgement. To say, in effect, "You have touched my life in some small way." And even if in a less digitally connected age, we would never have encountered any of these folks again, through Facebook we can recognize that they are at least one thread in the fabric of our lives.
In a similar vein, Facebook friendship has one sublime function in day-to-day life. When you run into someone from your past, or meet someone new in a casual setting, the old method of parting -- at least in New York -- was, "We should get a drink sometime." A drink, alas, that would never be gotten, as everyone understood even as the words were uttered. The new line is, "We should be Facebook friends." And the amazing part is that people actually follow through!
In other words, without any great effort or exertion on your part, this site allows you to make sure that everyone in your life you think well of in any way (as long as they are on Facebook) will know about it. It may not be friendship, but it is friendly.