Facebook Helps You Forget Your Friends


My skill set may be limited, but I’m a monster when it comes to filing.

I’ve wasted hours — days, weeks, even — sifting through my collection of photos and music files, organizing them into directories, assigning tags. As a kid, I did the same with books, arranging my sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult novels alphabetically by title. My friends loved to annoy me by moving books around and watching me hunt, squint-eyed, for the ones that were out of place.

Facebook works the same. I’ve arranged my Facebook friends into lists — by city, by state, by school, by era (there’s a big group called “Lucky Cheng’s” for all the acquaintances I made during those boozy years).

I tell myself that I do this so I can track them down. Our theater company is doing a show, and we have some last-minute comp tickets to spread around? One quick message to my New Orleans list, and I’m done. Someone from my fraternity gets married or suddenly passes away? Boom, taken care of.

Every so often, I’ll meet someone who doesn’t use Facebook, and they’ll tell me, “I hated high school. Why would I want to remember all those people?”  And I reply, “But that’s just it: you don’t. Facebook helps you forget them.”

And that may be the real reason I’m so compulsive about adding friends and dumping them in folders: so I can stop thinking about them.

It’s not like I want to forget them, really. Everyone on my list has either been (a) a friend in real life or (b) someone with whom I’ve had extensive online conversations. I like all of them. Well, nearly all.

But I worry about people I haven’t found on the network. Well, maybe not “worry”, but I spend a lot of time thinking about them. Like my best friend from high school — he used to cross my mind all the time, and I wondered what the hell he was doing with his life. Rumors ran through our circle of friends, but no one knew for sure. Then last year, he found me on Facebook and — bam — I don’t have to wonder anymore. I check in on him when he crosses my mind, I see what he’s up to, and I know that I can find him if I need him.

So, Facebook helps us forget. In a way, it’s kind of like writing.

That may sound counter-intuitive, since we tend to believe that the written word is forever. But before writing, people had to remember things, had to think of them constantly and give them their full attention. The traveling poets who passed down the Illyiad and the Odyssey did so by reciting those poems from memory. In fact, when writing became commonplace, philosophers like Plato spoke out against it:

When it came to writing, Theuth said, “This discipline, my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories: my invention is a recipe for both memory and wisdom.” But the King said, “Theuth, my master of arts, to one man it is given to create the elements of an art, to another to judge the extent of harm and usefulness it will have for those who are going to employ it. And now, since you are father of written letters, your paternal goodwill has led you to pronounce the very opposite of what is their real power. The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it’s not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered.

Plato, from “Phaedrus”, emphasis mine

And that’s what Facebook is really about — at least for me. It doesn’t help me remember people, it reminds me of them. The difference is subtle but serious.

In fact, if we want to get all meta about it, that’s what this blog has been about for the past 11+ years: allowing me to write stuff down and get it off my mind. Some people would say that’s a bad thing, would say that it’s better for me to think about things than write them down and forget them, but those people don’t live inside my head. It’s loud in there.

P.S. Those Facebook profile pics at the top of the page are available at high-res. Click here

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