Mutations (Reflections on Life)

Call Me Maybe: The Hazardous Ambiguity of Friendship in the Digital Age

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Much has been written and debated about the many ways in which technological advancements have changed the way that we communicate–for better and, most certainly, for worse. Recently I had my own revelation about just how much technology and the changes in communication have affected the nature of my own friendships.

One of my friends went MIA for a while. Although she had never been very active on social media, without warning, she deactivated her Facebook account. (As far as I know, she’s not on Twitter or anything else.) She didn’t respond to my texts or return my phone calls. A mutual friend of ours wasn’t able to get in touch with her either, and it wasn’t like her to disappear or be unresponsive. At all.

Now, just to paint a more accurate picture, neither I nor our mutual friend had been calling or texting our MIA friend every day or even every week. However, whenever we did attempt to communicate with her, we were unsuccessful. This pattern continued for about three months. During those months, my other friend and I tried to think of other ways to get in touch with her.

We had both known her since we were kids and we were starting to worry. We tried to see if she’d respond to different scenarios in our messages.We tried googling her. We tried to see if we could add one of her siblings on Facebook. As the friend who was without a doubt closer to her than our other friend, I felt especially guilty and inadequate about my inability to reach her. One of the things that plagued me the most was that, for the life of me, I could not remember her home phone number. And that’s how I know times have changed.

When we were younger, my friend and I talked on the phone on a regular (maybe even daily, especially as we got older) basis. We went to school together and one of us would call the other one if we needed help with a math problem and then talk about the day at school and who passed a note to whom and the new song out and so on until one of our guardians yelled at us to get off the phone and finish our work. This was before either of us had cellphones and you actually had to call your friend’s house and say “Good evening Mr. Smith. How are you? This is Britney.” And of course Mr. Smith would say, “Hello Britney. How are you?” and we’d briefly exchange polite small talk until I asked to speak to his daughter and he called her to the phone.

Of course, as the years went by and all my friends and I got cell phones, I dealt less and less with the “Mr. Smiths” of the world and just went straight to the source when I wanted to speak to my friends. This happened with everyone, from the more distant associates whose parents I had to humor just because, to my closest friends’ parents, some of whom I would talk to longer than I talked to their children when they finally came to the phone–but no one in this millenial age calls anyone’s house anymore.

Still, I can’t blame it all on technology. We’re college/grad school kids now and half of us aren’t even at our original homes 90 percent of the time. Yet, it still irked me to no end that I could not remember my MIA friend’s home number, couldn’t find an address book (remember those?!) that might still contain it, couldn’t search the phone listings for the thousands of people in NYC who had her same family name, and had no otherwise apparent way of figuring out what had happened to her.

Even if I had attempted to knock on her front door (which my friend and I were plotting), it had been a long time since I’d been to her house, and  although I knew the general area in which she lived, I didn’t even remember her address. (Understand, NYC is a big place.) A million different thoughts ran through my mind. What if something had happened to her? Was I too much of a forgotten childhood friend for someone in her family to notify me? Would they even know how to notify me, assuming they didn’t search through what was bound to be something like all 52 variations of “Britney” in her contacts list? Would a grieving family even be concerned with notifying their child’s friends? How would they pick which ones? I realized that to them, all I had become in recent years was a cellphone number in a phone or a Facebook  profile they probably never saw. My friend could be gone and I would have no idea.

The same problems could arise with my college friends. They come from all over the country and the world, and I’ve never even met many of their family members. I certainly don’t know where many of them live, aside from the name of the city, maybe. I may not even be on some of their parents’ radars at all. How will I know if something happens to them as we go our separate ways in life?

Not to mention that there are a whole slew of people I care about for whom I don’t even have direct contacts. We are Facebook friends and mutual Twitter followers. Yes, we know one another in real life, but long conversations are not the basis of our relationship. However, I’d still like to know if something happened to them. I really don’t mean to be gloomy or ominous, but we’ve gotten to a point where we don’t really know if a sudden drop off in someone’s social media presence is because they are busy, disinterested, or in some sort of dire distress.

It seems like my mom is always running into someone she knows in the supermarket who, in the midst of their game of catch up, will ask her if she heard that so and so died. My mom will catch the news like a fastball with a twinge of visible sadness, tell the passing friend that life is so short, give her a hug, and keep on pushing her shopping cart. I don’t want to think that any of my friends could become “grocery store bad news” one day.

Thankfully, my MIA friend did return my text recently and all is well, but the whole ordeal and all of these realizations got me so worked up that I immediately told my best friend that each of us should give the other person’s mother our cellphone number so that we can be notified if something happens to one of us.

Think of it as establishing a next of social kin.

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