THE BLOG

Why Facebook Friends Matter

23/04/2015 12:30 BST | Updated 17/06/2015 10:59 BST

It takes me less than five minutes to write a Facebook status update - I think about it, I write it, I post it. Sometimes I change it and then I leave it. Sometimes people comment on what I write, sometimes they don't. Flowers and sunsets are generally a hit. Longer articles not so much. Whilst I do think about what I post - and what people will think - it's all pretty instantaneous. Ironic perhaps when I remember the line in the movie The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg is told that the internet is written in biro as the reality today is that we post, we read and we forget. Or do we?

Recently I read an article in Wired magazine - actually found through a friend who had posted it on Facebook. It suggested that most of our Facebook friends aren't really our friends at all and that our Facebook relationships are one-sided and voyeuristic to a point where we would probably avoid face-to-face interactions with those people if we met them in the street. The article kept going round my head for days as, conversely, I felt that so many of my Facebook friends and relationships, even with people that I don't often see or have "real life" contact with, are actually so much more than that. For me, Facebook creates intimacy and connection in a way that other social media cannot.

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I wondered if it was only me feeling this way. If Facebook really is just about superficial friendships and the right now then why do I care much about the people out there and what they think about what I have to say? The truth is that I've found that Facebook has been a magical way of connecting me with people from different parts of my life. I've found that it has touched me and helped me and been a signpost to information that I would not otherwise have discovered. For me it's not superficial at all.

A lifetime ago I worked in an advertising agency. I wasn't a typical advertising girl but I loved it - perhaps it was the combination of super smart minds, creativity, the pace of it and the way we seemed to make the ridiculous and the impossible happen. When I left to pursue new adventures it was Facebook that allowed me to stay "in touch" with some of the people who had been part of that agency world. I saw babies, weddings and even caught up with a couple of them when I travelled around the world. All very light touch, all very Facebook.

One of those people was Tara. We were really the kind of Facebook friends that the Wired article talks about - we hadn't been close when we worked together and had happened across each other through other connections. To be honest Tara was one of those advertising people that I'd always been a little bit in awe of - super smart, confident, funny - and nice. She always had great advice and was strong and determined - a really positive role model. For a couple of years we followed each other - I saw pictures of horses and weddings and loved her witty posts. She got flowers and sunsets and the usual Facebook stuff.

Last year I was vaguely aware that something was going on as quite suddenly Tara's feed went strangely silent. The posts about world travel and airport breakfasts stopped and through other friends I figured out that something had happened to her. She had had an accident. A bad one. She'd fallen from her horse and was in hospital and had broken her neck. I knew and it mattered and I cared. And I was able to be in touch and find out how she was getting on and send her messages without being intrusive, all because of Facebook. The simple act of liking a post became more significant - it felt like each time I did it I was silently cheering her on. I never knew if it made a difference but that didn't matter and wasn't the point. In turn she continued to like my flowers and sunsets so I knew that I was somehow on her radar.

Then I read that article in Wired and it made me wonder if Facebook really did matter and if my random likes and comments had made any difference to Tara or if it had all just been an insignificant blur to her - so I wrote to her. Ironically that piece about shallow relationships had triggered a real conversation, one in which Tara wholeheartedly concurred that Facebook meant much more to her too.

Her view was that, like most computer programmes, Facebook is as good as its users. If your newsfeed is populated by people who like to post boast or send out cryptic, emotional pleas for attention/help, then, in order to retain your sanity, a shallow relationship with them is probably advisable. If, on the other hand, you only Facebook 'friend' fun, interesting people who you genuinely want to remain in touch with then you build a rich network. The power of Facebook then delivers a friendship group more extensive and diverse than one could maintain in 'real life' but no less meaningful for being virtual.

Tara told me that her Facebook friends were real friends and therefore the site had provided her with the means not only to stay in touch with them during eight months of hospitalisation but also to voice her fears and hopes and to receive a huge amount of love, support, encouragement and entertainment. Every 'like' did matter, every mickey taking post did make her laugh. It was through Facebook that her friends learned of her accident, through Facebook that they knew when and where they could visit and how she was doing. The virtual world crossed over into the real world - over 200 cards and letters arrived, flowers and packages were delivered. One friend, made twenty-two years earlier and not physically seen since, organised a box of hundreds of paper cranes inscribed with messages of hope from her friends and family all over the U.S. Facebook had provided a lifeline of support.

Her conclusion therefore was that, like the Force in Star Wars, Facebook can be used both for good and for evil. As in life, each individual should choose their 'friends' wisely.

Who knew that both Tara and I would be inspired by Facebook and what we found on our feeds in different ways? Touched not by beautiful images but by acts of kindness, strength of character and by real human interactions with the "friends" we have chosen. These Facebook friendships may not be the kind of friendships that we grew up with but they are real and how they touch our lives does matter. This is a new kind of human contact it allows us to make new discoveries and get different perspectives on the world around us. And if we do choose wisely it allows us to be in touch and stay in touch with people in truly meaningful ways. Who knows where it will take us next - I'm looking forward to the journey.

Tara Stewart

After working in the industry for 22 years, Tara abruptly left advertising inadvertently after falling from her horse in July 2014 and foolishly breaking her neck. Unfortunately for the world, she is still able to use voice recognition to write whilst she continues her rehabilitation. @The_HWIC