Facebook friends vs. real life friends, or, regular people vs. grieving people
(Left, the "real" me, and right, the "virtual" me.)
I didn’t set out to conduct an experiment comparing my Facebook friends to my real life friends, but I did end up creating a fairly controlled situation in two different contexts on Facebook. I even got a lesson or two out of it. I can tell the story as one about isolating yourself online – something that small groups who connect through social media are often accused of – or the source of an insight that helps us recognize the different ways that different people use Facebook at different times in their lives. I choose to interpret the comparison as a way to observe how we use social media tools, and what we take away from them. About finding about value and support during tough times – not as competition between the real world and the virtual one.
Here’s what happened: I have two pages on Facebook, one for my real name, and one for Supa Freshwidow, the owner of this blog. I have close to the same number of friends on both accounts. On the fourth anniversary of my husband’s death, it made sense to mark the loss in some way for both groups. On each page, I posted a status update tailored to the population and forum.
Under my real name, I posted: “Today is the 4th anniversary of Gavin’s passing. Shortie and I will spend some time remembering our loss and his love today. Please share your memory of Gavin by commenting, or send me an email. Thank you!” As with many normal people’s Facebook accounts, my friends here range from besties and ex-besties to colleagues to ex-co-workers to acquaintances, as well as classmates I have barely seen in 20 years. At least half of these friends met Gavin in person, many of them are primarily HIS friends, and they are all people I have met in real life. Dozens were at our wedding and a few hundred have met Short Stack in her 6 years on earth. There is also a page and a Flickr site, clearly referenced on my personal page, devoted to his artwork.
As Supa, the professional widow, I published: “Today is the 4th anniversary of Gavin’s death. I plan to spend some time alone, some with friends, cry, and laugh with our dear daughter. Wine, chocolate, and telephone will all be available should I need them.” Supa’s friends are mostly widowed people and those I have met since his death. I have met a few of them at conferences, and some of them exist in my “real” universe too because I have met them or made substantial contact with them through blogging or other media.
Well, let me tell you.
The sound of crickets from my real name account would have crushed my heart two years ago. My 700 “friends” didn’t exactly deluge me with love. I received:
-- 1 “like”
-- 12 comments (4 from widowed people)
-- 3 wall posts, 2 of which were on his career page and a few visits to the Flickr site
-- 1 e-mail
Supa, on the other hand, logged on and was greeted by a veritable receiving line of hot June hugs. My 700 peeps who have never met me or any of my family in person welcomed me with open and enthusiastic arms:
-- 10 “likes”
-- 67 comments (32 in the first hour, 2 from non-widowed people, and 3 from people with the same sadiversary)
-- 3 wall posts
-- 4 e-mails
At first glance – if I were to simply react – I’d say the real world knows nothing of grief and loss, is confounded by widowed people who are comfortable with themselves, and chooses not to respond even when I suggest a specific easy action for them to take. I’d think, widows are generous and unafraid, kind and loving. Widows give you a big, juicy kiss and a long hug that smells really nice. In the real world, you’re lucky if you get a Chardonnay-scented peck on one cheek. I’d say, no wonder widows only want to hang out with other widows. No wonder the avatars are winning.
But that’s not really a fair interpretation, is it?
Because the fact is that neither of these two identities is “me,” and they work and network in very different ways.
The “real” me uses Facebook as a secondary or tertiary means of socializing with a wide range of people I’ve met. And the overwhelming majority of people who know that “me” on Facebook also use it as a secondary or tertiary way of contacting me. I have no idea how often they check – some, as often as I do. Yes, there are some acquaintances who’ve become friends by status updates, comments, etc. But I’d never feel snubbed if my best friends ignored what I said on Facebook. And for all these people, I’m just another person with many qualities and a variety of experiences in my rich, deep life, from which Facebook “me” shows a tiny, fragmented slice through a peephole.
Supa, on the other hand, lives entirely online. Most of her Facebook friends relate to her solely as a widow, and she is something of a cheerleader and counselor, an ideal friend with the one biggest issue in common with them. Most of these folks know just a few young widowed people in the real world, and rely on the connections with others online for validation and support. People who are not active commenters (my page is public) tell me they get a lot out of just reading what others say. Because most of what we do is simply peer-to-peer sharing of daily experiences, observations, and our feelings and we are all going through something very intense in which we feel generally alone, these friendships have a special role. I’m a leader in this small community of geographically dispersed people, and someone whose page they check fairly often.
Also? I received just one phone call, a day late, from an elderly person who's new to Facebook. Guess which identity is her "friend?" Yes, the real me, the one shown with good jewelry in the above pictures.
So the difference between the responses is not, about real life versus virtual life, and thank God, it doesn’t mean I should disappear into the virtual world. But it does show me how much I am loved there by folks who understand me, and that my real world friendships won’t survive unless I put a bit more time into cultivating them. The contrast is a good illustration of the temptation to hide online and among those who speak our language during this time of widowhood and transition. It makes me think I’m getting too insulated and reminds me to get out of my bubble more often. Real world, I kind of miss you! World of grieving people, I just plain love you.
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