I recently lost a friend over a hamburger. Before Burger King suspended its "Whopper Sacrifice" campaign, in which it offered a free Whopper to anyone who removed 10 Facebook friends, one of my friends announced that she'd be participating. The next time I went to check her profile, I couldn't. Which, of course, led me to wondering momentarily, was it just about the Whopper? Was she looking for an excuse to unfriend me? What did I do? How do I make it right?
And then it hit me: If the answers to all those questions really mattered to me, I could call her and ask. Likewise, if I really cared what she was eating dinner, watching on TV, or coming down with -- the intelligence I was missing by no longer having her as a Facebook friend -- I could call her and ask. And if I didn't feel like calling her, which I didn't, why the hell did I care if we weren't "friends" anymore? Problem solved! Or rather, problem never existed.
Nevertheless, those were just the sort of questions Burger King wanted to provoke with the Whopper Sacrifice campaign, VP of marketing Brian Gies told the New York Times. "It seemed to us that it quickly evolved from quality of friends to quantity, which was interesting to us because it felt like the virtual definition of a friend became something different than the friends that you'd want to hang out with." Well, yeah -- as writer Hal Niedzviecki found out when only one of his 700 Facebook friends came to a party last summer, online "friendship" is not like the old-fashioned kind. But does that actually constitute a problem, as today's Times article suggests?
According to that, popular financial blogger Henry Blodget, so flummoxed by an avalanche of virtual "friends" he didn't really know, "asked Facebook to develop new friendship levels that would let users sort their acquaintances by degree of separation," like "work friends" and "BFFs." He specifically requested that Facebook create a way for him to "put friends in these groups without telling them I have done so." Geez, I have almost as many Facebook friends as Henry Blodget, and I already do that sorting with an application called "my own private thoughts." Furthermore, I ignore the updates that don't interest me with the aid of a clever feature called the "scroll bar," and when I feel overwhelmed by meaningless trivia about other people's lives, I utilize a tool known as "not checking Facebook for a couple of days." Is this really so complicated?
Personally, I love the extreme flexibility of the word "friend" in Facebook terms. If virtual friendship were more exclusive, I wouldn't be back in touch with that girl who moved to Colorado after fifth grade, the childhood friend who stopped talking to me after she made the cheerleading squad or a number of people I first met in kindergarten. I also wouldn't have a painless way to broadcast self-promotional stuff to readers who are keen enough on my work to bother friending me. I'm never going to hang out or even play Word Twist with the vast majority of those people, but I'm perfectly happy to call them all "friends." The word in this context may not mean what it used to mean, but it does mean something -- that two people have made a human connection, however distant. That's a good thing, no matter what you call it. And no matter how many of those tiny little connections display on my Facebook profile, I still know that my real friends -- the ones I call up because I haven't heard enough online about their dogs' latest escapades and their toddlers' sore tummies -- will never ditch me for a burger.