There was a time when I scoffed at Facebook. There was a time when I kicked sand in the face of MySpace (RIP). There was even a time when I laughed at Friendster, the first social networking site, although the joke was on me for even having an account on it.
And that’s because there was a time when I thought it was absurd to try to replicate my precious real-life friendships on the internet. Surely social networking sites were for people who didn’t have real social lives or friends? Because if they did, they’d be out with them, not sitting at home alone with their computer.
Admittedly, Facebook and MySpace had a certain novelty factor as adjuncts to physical socialising, especially because they let us share embarrassing photos of our nights out. I can still remember the dread every time I received a morning-after email saying I’d been tagged in a photo album called ‘Crazy Night’, or more likely ‘Keray-Zee Night’ – yes, our madcap natures even extended to spelling.
Those were the pioneer days, back when we still found Facebook’s “poke” feature amusing. (Or perhaps that was just me?) But then the site began to tunnel remorselessly towards the centre of our social lives. Within a few years, just as soon as we’d learned how to block those infuriating messages about zombies, werewolves and lonely brown cows, Facebook became indispensable.
Soon, my friends abandoned bulk emails for social invitations, since they either uncouthly shared everyone’s email address or were BCCed and ended up in people’s spam folders. Instead, they created Facebook events for birthdays, housewarmings, barbeques and picnics, so much so that on some days I even found myself double-booked, and felt like some kind of e-Kardashian.
And Facebook became the preferred method of keeping in touch. Work email addresses and phone numbers changed as people moved overseas and back again, but Facebook friends remained constant. These days, having an account is mandatory if you want to stay in touch with friends you don’t see often, which is probably why the social network statistics socialbakers.com says that 65% of people with internet connections have an account. Admittedly, the same site also says that Bubble O’Bill Ice Cream is the fourth most popular brand in Australia with 1.1 million fans. But the 65% figure seems conservative, if anything.
Twitter came along at about this time too, and I quickly got addicted when I realised it provided not only an endless stream of breaking news and interesting articles, but a guilt-free way of cyberstalking celebrities. I can make no better argument for the importance of Twitter to human civilisation than by pointing out that it lets us access everything Kanye West thinks, in real time.
As the years have passed, I’ve stopped seeing the majority of my friends more than a few times a year. Many of them are at home with young children, and while occasionally we gather en masse for children’s birthday parties, or for weddings where other mutual friends sign up to commence that journey, that’s more or less it. We’ve adapted into comfortable middle age, and we’ve brought Facebook with us. The party invitations have been replaced by invitations to baby showers, and many of my friends have even changed their profile photo to their child’s, a practice that surely intrigues psychoanalysts.
But we’re all still Facebook friends, and when they’re are at home minding their kids, many of the parents I know hop onto these sites for a chat. Socialbakers says that 54% of Australian users are female, and that the largest age groups are 25-34, and given the site’s popularity with the mothers I know, that comes as no surprise.
Despite being neither 25-34 or a parent myself, I appreciate the way Facebook lets me connect with friends I haven’t seen in years, and might never clap eyes on again. Some are in London or New York or Asia, and some are in the same city, just a few suburbs away. We could catch up for a coffee, of course, but neither of us quite has the time. But we’re still connected, and there’s something comforting about that.
Most sociable of all is instant messaging, both via Facebook and Twitter and those earlier stalwarts like MSN and and Skype and Google Talk. When a little green light pops up next to someone’s name, we’ll occasionally catch up with text messages the way we never get around to catching up over a beer.
These sites have even given me a new category of friends, the primarily online ones with whom I’ve never spent much physical time. Often we’ve met in a different city, and in previous years would have drifted out of touch, but nowadays can stay connected using social networks. On the rare occasions we catch up in person, I experience the odd realisation that I’m now closer to them than many of my friends who live in the same city.
And so it is that social networking can become your social life. If you’d told me this would happen when I first signed up to Facebook, I would never have believed you. But now that transition feels more comforting than disturbing. I still reminisce about the days when I hung out with a large group of friends, but there’s no denying that they’re over. And it’s genuinely reassuring to feel that we’re all still in touch, and may meet up again someday. Because when we click “Like” on each others’ posts, what we’re really saying is that we still like one another, and that’s a reassuring feeling.
The social networks have won. They’ve become as important part of my social life as having a mobile phone – not least because I can access them on it. And I now take comfort from the knowledge that when major events happen in my friends’ lives, for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, there will be a post about it in my Facebook feed. Until death, or dodgy internet connections, do us part.
An edited version of this article was published in Good Weekend on 23 September