Facebook Add Friend popup

This weekend was the first time I found myself on the receiving end of Facebook’s new and  more nuanced privacy settings. An old friend popped up in the Facebook sidebar, which rotates an assortment of different people in your friend list. On a whim, I clicked her picture, so I could catch up on her latest news.

Instead I found myself staring at a virtually blank screen showing only her minimal info: clearly, she’d put me on a list of friends who would only have access to her limited profile. I’d been demoted from friend to “friend”™.

This reminded me of an assignment I’d received in my ninth-grade Latin class, when I had to translate the following story:

A son brags to his father about all the friends he has, only to meet with skepticism. “You call these people are your friends,” the father says. “Let’s see if you’re right. Slaughter a goat, and put it in a sack. Then go to the house of one of your friends. Tell him you have killed a man, and you need his help disposing of the body.”

The son does as his father says, and arrives at the house of his first friend. He presents his bloody sack, and asks his friend to help him dispose of the (supposedly human) remains. The friend is horrified and sends him away.

The son repeats the scene at the home of his next friend, who also refuses to help. The son visits friend after friend, but none are willing to help him conceal his crime.

Finally he returns to his father, defeated, and explains that all of his friends have turned him away.

“I have only one friend,” the father says. “Go to his house, and explain that you are my son. Show him the sack, and ask if he will help you.”

Once again, the son does as his father says. This time, the father’s friend – a true friend – immediately offers his assistance in burying the evidence of the son’s supposed crime.

I can’t remember the Latin translation, but the lesson stuck with me: there’s a big difference between “friends” and friends.

You can take a few lessons from this story yourself: the futility of making your kids take Latin. The importance of actually looking inside any blood-covered sack before disposing of it.  The opportunity for a hit Facebook application called “Goat Bag”.

I won’t define friendship as the willingness to conspire in covering up a homicide, but there is undoubtedly a difference between friendship as it was classically understood and the click-here-to-accept notion of friendship that has become commonplace online.

Simply using the word “friend” to describe a network-to-network connection effectively cheapens the notion of friendship. And if you’ve heard those implicit air quotes in the way people sometimes use the word friend to describe a social network connection, you know how quickly the currency of friendship is getting devalued.

There’s a simple solution — one you see on a variety of networks. Instead of using the term friend — a term that should have real meaning and value — networks can use words like buddy, connection, or contact.

Meanwhile, it’s up to us users to remember what real friendship involves: Genuine conversation (not mutual monitoring of status updates). Trust (not just putting someone on a “trusted contacts” list). Providing support (and not just of the tech variety).

We all know what the word friend can mean — and what it means to have real friends in our lives. Let’s not get confused by the online appropriation of the word “friend” to describe whoever happens to be at the other end of a T1 line.