The truth about connections
Or, how I blame social media's approach to friendship for my own failings
I got a message from a close friend the other day, telling me he’d found out something awful while innocently trawling Facebook. A friend of ours, A, had died. And not that recently. Not recently at all, in fact: June 2021. Over eighteen months ago, when the world looked and felt very different. Gone, all those months, and we hadn’t known anything about it.
It seems strange, in a world where you’re closer to every corner of the universe than ever before, that someone you know could have died, and you have no idea. It wasn’t only me in the dark, either. None of our ‘group’, or whatever you might call the circle of friends to which we both belonged, knew. A was not a close friend, but he wasn’t some random – we had 23 mutuals on Facebook, after all. He was introduced to the wider circle by another friend and we would see him on nights out or at parties or picnics, and for a while he became a fixture; we’d get wasted together, clinking glasses at sunrise, bowling in and out of taxis hauling our weary bodies to various flats across south London, he came to weddings. He lived just up the road from where I live now, in a block of flats up at Elephant, and every time I’ve walked past, I’ve thought to myself ‘I wonder how A is’, and now I know.
A was very funny, deliciously catty, and unashamedly camp as knickers. He was world weary, self-deprecating, and a general good egg, you might say. He could be very cutting but his jokes were victimless; he always turned it round on himself and, I realise now looking back, could’ve done with being a little easier on himself. We hadn’t seen him for a while. Once the straights of the group started having babies and heading out of the city to find somewhere more affordable to live, perhaps the glue of our infrastructure became unstuck, and those not right at the centre drifted away. Age came for us too: the nights out dried up, the excuses to meet became less compelling. A had lots of other friends, anyway, and was always out doing something, or on his way somewhere else.
The friend who told me A was dead said something that really got me thinking.
‘It makes you realise how useless Facebook is.’
Because it is, isn’t it? Now, anyway. It’s not been fit for purpose for years, of course, having long since morphed from a slightly twee way of connecting with friends into one of the internet’s main sewer pipes. But it really hit home how utterly crap and pointless algorithms are, the allegedly intelligent, laser-focused bots, codes and programs that claim to serve us content we want, or would be interested in, for bringing so-called likeminded people closer. To find out A had died, we had to go foraging for an awful truth that you might think would be dished straight up to me. The only reason my friend spotted it was because a memory came up – Facebook loves telling you the absolute drivel circling the plughole of your brain from five years ago – and A had commented on it at the time, years ago, a trace of a voice reaching out from the past. My friend had, as I’m sure we all often have about the Facebook adjacent, wondered what A was up to now and, after a couple of scrolls down his page, began to see the whole story unfold. Tributes, recollections of times past, ‘thinking of you when I heard this song’ messages, and the first post itself breaking the news, with its devastating timestamp. Also his last comment, only a couple of days before his death, a funny, deprecating joke, making himself the clown, as was his way.
I was briefly, and perhaps irrationally, furious with Facebook itself. If these algorithms are so smart, how could they not scrape A’s page and work out something had happened? I think of all the inane garbage my feed loves serving up to me:
‘X person you’ve never interacted with has commented on this post by a person you’re not friends with’
reams of divisive bollocks shared and liked by people I don’t even know anymore
five-day old news
the same post I’ve seen three times already that week
someone in Leominster is selling a racing bike.
Wall-to-wall dross available whenever I don’t want it, yet this allegedly intelligent software which, lest we forget, LITERALLY influences elections and acts as powerful accelerant to the culture wars, couldn’t even show me (or any of the other 23 people who knew both of us) a post that might’ve given us a clue to what had happened.
Facebook mines data, it knows everything about us, yet it has lost sight of the threads that bind its users together. What’s the point, then? If you’re not interested in the bile, the clickbait, the ceaseless ‘remember-when’ trivia, or what trifling argument someone you vaguely remember from school is having with their neighbours, what function does Facebook serve? A and I interacted on social media: he left comments under updates; there are photos of us at the same events; he once posted, under a new profile pic, that I looked like Nick Clegg – yet Facebook never noticed the connection, or, at some point, deemed unimportant a whole wing of his friends list, deciding we probably wouldn’t be interested in any increased activity on his page.
It’s not Facebook’s fault that I let the connection wither and yet… in a way, it is. Social media has made us accustomed to friendships hovering in the background in some kind of holding area; you end up in parasocial relationships with people you actually know. Living on timelines has made us lazy. We catch up passively, through the content they share, so the ones who post a lot receive more attention, while the more social media reluctant, or the total refuseniks, becoming semi-peripheral. For a while, anyway; I’ve long accepted that social media is now for interacting with people I don’t know that well, and that getting in touch with true friends happens where the rest of the world can’t see. But in that transitional period between everyone sharing everything and then realising that maybe communicating off-grid is best after all, a few people have likely fallen down the cracks in the news feeds. It’s a cruel trick of Facebook that often the people we see most from are those we’ve no connection to at all.
It’s true that social media encourages lasting connections between people who should allow themselves to drift one another. We cannot, and should not, keep everyone in our lives for ever; some people belong to past versions of ourselves. Yet, A didn’t feel like one of those people, and I’m sad I never got to see him again.
I’m no idiot, though, and know my anger at a faceless corporation is actually guilt. We weren’t the kind of friends who texted, really, and it’s unlikely we’d have met up just the two of us – although I do remember a hilarious couple of hours, us both jumping up and down to Sugababes remixes in my living room at the back-end of a two-day bender while waiting for my then-boyfriend to get back from somewhere. It wouldn’t have killed me, would it, to have fired off a quick FB message to say I’d moved back into the area, or had a scroll of his page every now and again, whenever he popped into my head?
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is an ancient saying, but it’s never felt so pertinent, or so devastating. If you’re wondering how someone is, show them. A quick message. Can’t hurt.
Too late for A and me, however. I’m sorry, darling. So very sorry.
So painfully true. This could easily happen to me and yeah, now I'm going off to write a host of emails. Thanks
I’m sorry for your loss.