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May 12, 2019

What 2,000 Strangers on Facebook Taught Me about Modern Society.

To sum it up: we’re lonely, and I don’t understand anything about the internet age.

I recently accepted 2,000 friend requests from strangers on Facebook. (This is why. And here are some issues I have with the way some men are using social media like they use all public spaces.)

Once they were there, I took the opportunity to ask these 2,000 new friends some questions. I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised at their answers.

I asked the Facebook sphere:

“I’m super curious. What brought you here? ie. What motivates you to friend people you don’t know “in real life”?

[…]I ask from a place of sheer curiosity. No judgment here. Please comment with your answer or answers!

A. Why not?!

B. I have mutual friends with someone, and they seem interesting.

C. I have mutual friends with someone, and I think they’re hot.

D. I’m unsatisfied with my social life where I live, so I’m seeking community online.

E. I am a bot. Beep boop.”

Of approximately 64 respondents,

  • Eleven self-reported as (not-so) secret robots.
  • Four knew me “IRL” and were not part of the 2,000 new adds.
  • Twenty-nine fell into category B, broadly defined.
  • Nine admitted up to Tinder-style friending mutual friends who looked cute. (Cheers to honesty!)
  • Nine referenced connecting with a vibe, spirit, or energy. Not quite B nor C.
  • A handful cited general curiosity, which I would class as A, or “why not.”
  • And 11 responses I would qualify as D—seeking community online.

(Note that many respondents offered more than one response. It is also difficult to gather data by counting Facebook comments, so these numbers may be one or two off the mark.)

Okay, so, what does any of it mean?

Some of the most compelling responses I saw (to this poll and others) described people’s “real life” communities in some depth. A genuine desire to connect with a wider array of humans than those available at home—to broaden one’s horizons—seems to drive many to use social media in this way. Many seem to seek out friends who live in or visit different places and can bring some new perspectives, photos, and inspiration to their timelines.

As one respondent wrote, “I wanted to add people who motivate me to be a better person, to go out and do more. It’s been working.” Another explained, “I like to add people who seem like kindred spirits, people that brighten up your day or news feed, those who inspire, and those I admire.”

Others seem to be cultivating a social life online that is more satisfying or stimulating than what they can find at home. “If I can’t go to the world, I will bring the world to me.” Or something like that.

One new friend replied, ““I really don’t go out much. Mainly cause I don’t like going to bars and living in the middle of the woods the average bar around is kind of hokey.” Another, “I want to see all the things you get to see… I’m stuck in this place for a little longer.”

Others, of course, seem to feel that the world is their Tinder app. Swipe right (or is it left?) on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and whatever else is popular these days. Outliers rule: throw enough apples into the universe, and one might land in your basket. For more on this, see my previous article on the bizarre ways that some men are bringing harassment to social media.

But then, someone raised the question, “Where is here, and what is real life?” I received one message that elaborated, “I think the ethos around adding people that you haven’t met in “real life” is changing possibly.”

Which brings me to my next point.

If I’ve learned one thing from this whole experiment, it’s that I really, honestly don’t get it.

Because for me, there is still a big difference between my “real life,” filled with friends and loved ones who give me hugs, share meals and movement with me, and populate most of my waking hours, and my “virtual life,” filled with readers, acquaintances and “friends of friends of friends” who exist at the edges, real to themselves, but not yet made flesh in my reality.

I have long understood that social media is a versatile platform that means many things to as many people. For some, these channels are for close friends and family only. For others, it’s a cornucopia of friends who reside outside our physical sphere. And others (like me), capitalize on these technologies to promote our creative or entrepreneurial work far beyond our personal networks.

But I still don’t think I get it.

The fascinating, weird, unruly phenomenon of it. The shifting, dark, light, gray mass of connection and disconnection that defines our virtual worlds.

I would claim that 100% of the people who responded to my surveys are seeking connection—driven by motives that range from superficial to sexual to emotional to spiritual.

I’m less clear on whether or not they are finding it.

This experiment has left me with far more questions than answers. I could have predicted that much from the start.

I conclude this fascinating exploration feeling more empathy for this modern paradox that leaves us both lonelier and more connected than ever before. I feel grateful for the capacity to connect with so many strangers and call them friends. An expansion of the potential we all have, every day, to turn to a fellow human being, say hello, and begin a friendship.

At the same time, the sheer volume of human connection at our virtual doorstep is overwhelming in a way it may never have been before.

I encourage anyone who has followed this journey to ask more questions, harass less people, talk to more strangers “in real life” (wherever that is for you), and stay human.

And to those who have participated, thank you.

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