Monday, November 29, 2010

The art of friending (and unfriending)

Not too long ago, I was reading a New York Times article about why people unfriend other people on Facebook and it got me thinking about a lot of things, truly.
  • What does Friend mean, anyway? (And when did it get to be a Proper Verb? When did Verbs get Proper, anyway?)
  • Don't you Friend people you like, and thereby, de facto, accept as they are?
  • Who are you to deem someone else uninteresting?

Okay let's start at the end.

"The rules of Internet friendship seem to differ in other ways from their earthbound equivalents. There is a bluntness to unfriending that would hardly fly in real life: “As soon as you have a baby, you become uninteresting,” noted one survey respondent."
Really? You think maybe, possibly, it could be that it's a case of the other person hasn't become uninteresting but, in fact, developed a new life focus that is just worlds away from your own, and that doesn't make either of you just means you don't fit the same way together? Could it? Sometimes you can overcome that, and sometimes, not so much. Definitely not at all if you act like an ass and accuse the other person of being a bore and thus unworthy of your friendship.

But you know? I can guarantee that nearly every parent can name or guess at a few or more friends they lost after becoming parents. It's one of those mitigating life changes that not every friendship can weather. Usually, though, it's one of those cases where the friendship fades away.

But most curiously to me the study's author asserts that it's unique to Facebook to have a person decide to unfriend you and you just never know what happened:
“One of the interesting things about unfriending is that most real-world friendships either blow up or fade away,” said Christopher Sibona, who wrote the study with his adviser, Steven Walczak, an associate professor of information systems management. “But on Facebook, users actively make the decision to unfriend, and people often don’t know why or what’s happened in the relationship.”
Really, Christopher Sibona, you have a satisfying known case for the end of every one of your friendships?

I don't.

Do you?

It's true that usually friendships fade away. We get busy, paths no longer cross, and new people and things fill well-enough any void we might notice that it's not a pain point, just an occasional mild twinge of nostalgic missing and hoping the other person is doing well.

Rarely, there will be some mitigating factor. Like a blow-up.

But usually there is just no good reason although you can probably think of a hundred excuses.

Sometimes, though, you just get unfriended, in real life. Not just on Facebook.

I think my most mysteriously lost friend was Bridget, someone I met in my 30s. I met Bridget in a mom's group and I immediately thought she was my kind of people. We had a lot in common and did seem to click. We got together, chatted, had playdates with our babies (and really, when they can't even sit up yet, we all know who that time is for, am I right?). We even discussed nanny-sharing, but couldn't get that quite connected.

One day we had a scheduled playdate at a local baby gym -- by then the babies were mobile. And she didn't show. And she never returned my calls or emails, got in touch, replied, or ever showed up anywhere again.

To this day I don't know why.

She just...unfriended me.

That happens a lot in Facebook, and while a lot of times we might not notice, a lot of friends are like Bridget: people we've invested in and we notice when they vanish.

At least, though, Bridget knew why I wanted to be friends with her -- something she might not have if I'd just sent a friend request to her in Facebook.

I admit I have more than a couple of friendship requests sitting in queue, awaiting response from me. Unfortunately, at this time, I can only accept or ignore.

I wish I could instead have a conversation -- who are you, and why did you want to friend me in Facebook?

Here's what I think:

1. Don't ever send a blank friend request unless you are absolutely positive the person knows who you are, and even then, it's best to include a brief message about why you want to be Facebook friends.

2. Don't hate on people for what they post. Instead, let it expand your horizons, even if only for a laugh (ahem FARMVILLE ahem) or to cause you to think through your own closely held beliefs or political positions. (By the same token, don't post hate. You don't need hate to be critical in your thinking.)

3. Don't hate on someone's status. Unless someone specifically opens a discussion, clearly, and invites debate and disagreement, think about it: posting something hypercritical or worse on someone's wall is walking into their party and dissing them loudly, publicly. I can take discussion and even disagreement as well as the next person, or even better (since I sort of thrive on it) but the time someone posted "COWARD, you're a horrid mom" in reply to one of my blog links was not a good moment. I know it said more about her than about me, but still, I was left with this ugly mean thing in my space, on my wall. It was a quandary: be a big girl and leave it or delete it? I've even been the bad guy. I posted something I intended to be funny and instead it offended. My friend deleted the entire thread, but notified me via private message. It was very civil, and I think a fair enough act. I appreciated being notified, took the chance to apologize, and vowed to be more cautious and thoughtful going forward. You don't have to be a yes man or agreeable at all times, but try disagreeing diplomatically, which might mean privately. And never be afraid to ask: is this open for discussion, even if it includes disagreeing?

4. If someone puts up a new profile photo feel free to tell that person how great they look. Take any opportunity to send some love to people.

5. Let friendships, real ones, and even lightweight Facebook ones, be the measure of your commitment to relating to others. If you make the decision to unfriend, that's an action -- it's not a case of a blow up or fade away. The worst hurts I've ever seen from anyone is when they get dumped by someone they care about and don't know why. Have the courtesy to let the other person know, in a kind way, if you think they'll notice your departure. Don't leave someone hanging at the play gym looking for you for two hours. If you've been a silent lurker, maybe fading away is best. But if it's someone you've interacted with and something causes you to decide to unfriend, talk to the other person first. Maybe it can be salvaged. Maybe not. Either way, you won't just POOF! vanish.

Real friends might last a sprint or a marathon's length of time. The real mark of a friend, though, is someone who make communicating with you something valuable and important.

Monday, November 01, 2010

RIP Ted Sorensen (If You Can)

After a stroke today, incomparable JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen died.

He was 82.

Sorensen might be the most quoted speechwriter. He is certainly the man behind JFK's best lines. Sorensen, though, always attributed the famous lines -- such as "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" -- to Kennedy.

In an interview with the BBC about a decade ago, Ted Sorensen tried to explain why he and John F Kennedy got along. I think, in fact, it was his way of trying to explain why he always said JFK came up with the best lines, rather than taking the credit.

It's something writers can understand, I think; in essence, to paraphrase, he said he channeled JFK when writing -- he knew him so well, knew what he'd want to say and simply formed the lines that he knew his friend would want.

As someone who has ghostwritten and extensively "developmental edited" books, I know what he means. As someone who has written lines for politicians to say, I never thought of those words as my own. In fact, one day, while cleaning out a file cabinet, I came across a folder with old typewritten copies of the brief radio addresses I had written for a candidate who ran for president. I read the words with a sort of shock -- it still did not seem as if I had written it. Perhaps that's why it remained in a file folder rather than in my portfolio. It hardly seemed my own work.

Of course, I'm no Sorensen.

Sorensen compared himself to Kennedy in that old BBC interview, or rather, he contrasted himself. Kennedy was privileged and Ivy League educated, while Sorensen was a middle class mid-westerner with a state school degree. All totally respectable, but we know cache.

That was all superficial, though, he explained, because they had in common what really mattered: core values and ethics, and at heart both valued public service highly.

It's that factor that made the speeches -- his speeches -- great. "Speeches are great when they reflect great decisions," Sorensen famously said.

What did Sorensen think of modern day speeches.

I know what I think.

I think modern speeches are not great.

I think that's why Barack Obama so captured American attention: his speeches were great. They were great because, in general, they reflected great ideas. The tricky wicket is, of course, the execution of those ideas. That hasn't been so great. It rarely is. But I almost think faith is even more important, and let's be honest: we're missing a lot of faith.

Faith that our leaders are great.

Losing Sorensen the day before Election Day feels a little portentous.

I don't think the time for great speeches is past; and I think anyone who makes great speeches into a negative is perversely mistaken. You know who I mean.

Speeches now focus more on what someone brings and how the other person is defective, less on great ideas. Speeches now are either attacking, defensive, or downright offensive.

Speeches now talk a lot about The People, but oddly enough, I rarely recognize any people in the actual speech. That means it's probably hyperbole, and definitely a personal agenda.

People have now come so far from great that they mistake demagoguery for emotionally compelling and thus great. That's tragic. To me, anyway, Sorensen took a different view -- he was more optimistic, I guess you could say.

Sorensen actually addressed that in his 2008 book, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (from the History News Network interview):
"...[the book] reflects his idealism and hope for the future. The book recounts Sorensen’s childhood nurtured by a progressive and idealistic family in Lincoln, Nebraska; his historic JFK years as a senatorial aide and then as special counsel to president with challenges such as the cold war, the civil rights struggle, and the space race; and his subsequent law career advising governments, multinational organizations, and corporations, and meeting with world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Anwar Sadat, and Fidel Castro."
HNN's Robin Lindley interviewed Sorensen, and I think these two questions and answers explain it all, really (bolding mine):
RL: Both legendary Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington State and Sen. John F. Kennedy offered you jobs at about the same time in 1952. How did you decide to serve with Sen. Kennedy rather than Sen. Jackson, whose office later became a breeding ground for neoconservatives?

TS: At the time, I knew nothing of Jackson’s hawkish inclinations or even that he would later be known as “The Senator from Boeing.” Instead, I chose Kennedy because [he asked me] to work on a legislative program to revive the sagging New England economy where unemployment was high and new investment was low. Sen. Jackson said I had a good reputation as a lawyer and he needed somebody like that to get his name in the papers. He also said he liked my Scandinavian name because that would go over big back in Seattle. And I chose Kennedy without much difficulty.

RL: It must have been reassuring to find a job with a humane senator who read books and knew a lot about history.

TS: That’s Jack Kennedy. That’s exactly right. Despite all our surface differences—he was a millionaire’s son, a Roman Catholic, a war hero, a Harvard graduate—and I was at the opposite end of almost all of those. Nevertheless, we found that we wanted this to be a better country, we both believed in public service, we both were interested in public policy, and we both wanted to see a peaceful world.
(You might be interested in reading the rest of the interview -- it's a good one.)

Sorensen chose Kennedy because of his values: revive a sagging economy, make this a better country, believe in public service.

He didn't want to work for Jackson as a "good lawyer who could get his name in the papers."

As a result, Sorensen wrote great speeches (and that was the least of it). Because he had great ideas and worked with someone who had great ideas.

No demagoguery required.

Just a lot of heart.