I’m married and in my mid-30s, as are the majority of my friends. Many of them have one or more children, and several have relocated far from our NYC Metro Area roots. As family obligations mount, we find ourselves seeing far less of each other than we did just a few years ago. Come one, come all weekly bar hopping or house parties have turned into monthly table-for-four meals.
We see or speak with close friends less frequently, while not-so-close friends fade into obscurity. We’ve entered our settled down, sandwich-generation years and, in a relatively short timespan, our circles have become both smaller and less close-knit. This distancing my peers and I have experienced – faded friendships mandated by life circumstances and time constraints – is, of course, common among 30-somethings. We are by no means tragically unique.
We are, however, among the first to live through this mostly age-related lifestyle change in the era of social media, whose most popular forum, Facebook, was founded while we were still partying together. As we’ve gradually drifted from each other, Facebook has conversely emerged as a mainstay in most of our lives.
There are, of course, other social sites, but Facebook alone has the combination of mass-membership and functional versatility conducive to serving as a representable cyber-self.
Why, then, do I rarely feel like Facebook brings me closer with friends and, in many cases, does quite the opposite?
The answer is simple: Most of us don’t use the medium effectively – and this misuse goes far beyond the common examples of poor Facebook practices.
For the newly settled down especially, here are 10 tips on how to use Facebook to stay connected with friends we no longer see often enough.
1. Encourage interaction
Since friends see each other less as adults, our social media presence can help or harm our personal relationships more so than, for example, a teenager who will see the majority of his friends tomorrow at school. My comments on Facebook are all that most people I know will see from me on a given day. It therefore makes all the more sense to say something engaging and, ideally, that invites comments a bit more nuanced than “Good 4 U!”
2. Recognize what is engaging, and what isn’t
Before you label me a cyber-curmudgeon, let me qualify that the word “engaging” casts a wide net, and can aptly apply to some established, widespread Facebook practices. Travel photos are engaging, as are photos and details of major life events. I have a friend who recently completed a grueling Ironman Triathlon, and found his photos both impressive and inspirational.
Extending an open invitation via status update? Great! Asking for advice? Sure. Groaning about a struggling sports team, disappointing movie or dissatisfying meal? Fair game. I’m not trying to reinvent cyberspace here. This does, however, bring us to #3:
3. Your Friends Like You. Remind Them Why
In addition to the more established forms of engagement listed in #2, once in a while try saying something that truly reminds people why they like you in the first place. Share a quick paragraph about a topic that’s important to you, or an experience you recently had that brought to mind something you heretofore hadn’t known or felt. Your friends will either identify with you or – equally valuable – appreciate the added insight into what makes you tick – what makes you you.
4. Stop being so reserved
We’ve all heard woeful tales of college students ruining future job prospects by posting depictions of immature, even illegal acts on Facebook, or of established professionals losing their jobs for overtly controversial comments. In light of this, most people are safe to a very boring fault in their social media usage, hiding their true thoughts – about politics, about current events, about themselves – behind impenetrable walls of banal photos, innocuous “what I’m doing right now” updates and, worst of all, inspirational eCards.
There’s no cyber-boogeyman waiting to use the slightest slice of honesty you reveal online and ruin your life with it. Thinking that way is both self-centered and, toward the goal of sustaining friendships through social media, self-defeating. This notion correlates to #5:
5. Keep in mind the differences between friends and casual acquaintances
Candor and identification are two hallmarks of friendship; without them we’re barely more than thumbnails to each other. Honesty endears and, by lifting your cyber-veil of secrecy even just a little, you’ll also encourage others to be more forthcoming on Facebook. I hereby promise that the world will not end in the process.
The most fulfilling status update I’ve ever posted is this: “My name is Christopher Dale, and I’m an alcoholic.” That is, of course, a rather extreme example; some people may suffer untenable consequences by such a revelation, while I have the atypical luxury of being nearly entirely open about my recovery. My point is that the level of guardedness currently displayed by most on Facebook is more a self-imposed silence – one fomented by a paranoid societal norm – than it is a no-brainer necessity.
6. Honesty really can be the best policy
More often than not, honesty’s rewards far outweigh its risks. For example, sharing some details about my struggles with addiction on Facebook has not only directly helped fellow alcoholics on my own friends list, but also led to my becoming a sort of sober referral: Through my openness, I’ve had opportunities to help several friend-of-a-friend problem drinkers, including spouses of friends and even a family member of a colleague.
7. Reimagine your friends list
One of the most common constrictions on being more forthright on Facebook is that almost everyone has friended far too many people. Admit it: you should have kept your colleagues and other professional contacts on LinkedIn. Many of us also should have omitted most family members – especially our parents.
All is not lost. Facebook now has “restricted” lists that allow you to block individual friends list occupants from seeing your posts without the potentially explosive indignity of unfriending them. If you don’t post very often, few people – especially colleagues, who I see as the most dangerous of Facebook friends – are likely to notice. If you do post often, try posting less over a period of a few weeks before building your restricted list. This gives the appearance of a slow descent into social media obscurity. It’s the Facebook fade.
I have been using Facebook daily for more than five years, and I have barely 100 registered friends. And even with this low figure – many of my friends have well over 500 connections – there are over a dozen folks on my restricted list. For me, Facebook friendship is like regular friendship: quality over quantity.
8. Stop humblebragging already
Oh no! You just realized that you may have come off as snotty while chatting with Adam Levine? I’m devastated. Feeling ashamed after ordering double dessert while flying first class? I feel for you, I really do.
Humblebragging is probably the most unfriending-worthy out of a lengthy list of Facebook fouls. Not only is it a desperate cry for attention – bringing into question one’s self-esteem – but humblebragging also carries the added offense of insulting readers’ intelligence by masking a mega-boast with a mini-roast. That said, it’s a double-don’t.
Humblebragging is far worse than, for example, actual bragging… because at least an outright braggart is being forthright about his intentions. Cease and desist.
9. Keep inside jokes inside
If you’re posting a silly link that’s essentially an inside joke, post it to your friend’s wall exclusively or, better yet, send them a private message about it. Somewhere along the line, communication between two people became something for public consumption. It’s not – it’s just superfluous noise.
10. Exclamation points are for children!!!!!!
Stop the habitual overuse of exclamation points!! There’s a limit on how excited you can possibly be about, for example, what concert you’re at!!!! It gives the impression that you’re an easily amused simpleton!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Through these practices, I’ve sustained several cherished relationships with friends who have dually chosen to capitalize on social media’s ability to help keep close friendships close despite distance and time impoverishment. In fact, in many cases I’ve strengthened previously tenuous ties through effective Facebooking.
For example, I have friends who were previously little more than acquaintances but, through our mutually engaging use of Facebook, have become close enough that I was invited to their weddings and other major life events.
I even have a few friendships that were completely built over Facebook – friends of friends with whom I became close through meaningful social media dialogue. I just met one of these wholly social media-manufactured friends face-to-face this summer. When we met, we hugged as if we were old companions who simply hadn’t seen each other in a while. We were already familiar. Now that’s special and, I think, showcases what’s truly possible amidst our largely eye-polluting newsfeeds.