What is this meaning of “friend”? One Washington Post executive, when he first met with Mark Zuckerberg, saw a fundamental insight that Facebook embodies. In late 2004, Chris Ma, a senior manager for investments and acquisitions at the Post, met with Zuckerberg and concluded that at bottom he was a psychologist. The Facebook founder saw that “kids have a deep-seated desire to have certain kinds of social interactions in college and what drives them is their extreme interest in their friends—what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, and where they’re going.” That is the kind of interest that Facebook serves and institutionalizes—this intense adolescent interest in what their peers are doing, who is friends with whom, who’s going to what party on Friday night. For the most part, it’s what used to be called “gossip.”
There’s a problem with encoding in software a set of behaviors favored by teenagers and early twenty-somethings who can become addictively enmeshed in the Facebook culture, visiting the site many times each day, checking up on their friends, adding in their own thoughts or reporting on their own activities, perhaps even with the odd compromising photo. The risk is one of getting stuck in the kind of behavior that most of us outgrow at some point as we aspire to more intimacy, deeper relationships, and personal growth that requires solitude as well as fellowship. And we end up with work and responsibilities that consume lots of time in our days. In short, we end up having lives. We may not end up having 738 friends and a high-tech social graph to show for it. Instead we may have a small circle of friends and family that means something. And we don’t have to “friend” anybody to have it.