I’m writing this on a fine day, right around my birthday. And what a glorious time to be alive! The sun is shining, birds are chirping, and automated “social networking” sites have started sending “Happy Birthday” e-mails on behalf of my so-called friends, to make their lives more convenient. I can’t begin to describe how touched I am.

Ok, fellow geeks. Listen up: an automated e-mail is not, has never been, and never will be a relationship. In fact, it’s insulting. It says you don’t care enough to stop by the local drugstore, buy a pre-printed, pre-messaged card, address it, and put a stamp on it. In fact, when your automatically-generated card arrives, far from making me feel like I have a friend, it makes me want to go eat worms, since obviously no one cares except BeMyFriend’s automated birthday module.

Relationships happen when people care about each other. “Care” is an emotion, a feeling. You know feelings? Like “hunger” or “horny,” only it turns out there are a lot more where those came from.

We’ve created a world of so-called “social media.” The idea is that your share articles, videos, etc. with your friends by adding them to your electronic e-mail list. It’s a neat idea. It can bring your friends closer, as you learn more about what they’re doing. My best friend from college and I re-connected through social media and it’s been wonderful!

Notice well the sequence: make friend, “friend” them on social media, share fun stuff. Let me repeat that: social media lets you meet your existing friends more deeply, and then meet their friends, who might become friends in their own right.

This has been getting confused with another sequence: “friend” someone on social media, they magically become your friend. It doesn’t work that way. It didn’t get you a date in high school, it’s not going to make friends now. The human relationship comes first, the electronic sharing of e-mail addresses comes second.

Some people take great pride in how many people have “friended” them. “I have over 1,000 Facebook friends!” one Twitterer proudly exclaimed. Why is that a good thing? Well, when your car breaks down, you can call 1,000 people who you know nothing about and cry “Help! I’m stranded by the side of the road all alone.” One of those 1,000 people is George. George “friended” you because you remind him so much of his first romance. The romance ended badly, but George is determined to recapture the love of his life. “I’ll be glad to pick you up,” e-mails George. “What kind of flowers are your favorite?” (Huh. Maybe it will get you that date.)

Seriously, people. A “link” on LinkedIn, a “friend” on Friendster … those are entries in a database. Yes, it’s a “relational” database, but that’s a technical term. It doesn’t mean you have a relationship. They clicked their mouse while viewing your profile. That’s a pretty low threshold. Geek-speak might call them “friends.” Honesty would call them “entries in your personal e-mail marketing list.” They’re not friends until you go beyond the mass-broadcast automated status update saying “Just ate too much BBQ. Loudest burp ever!”

I have many Twitter followers and people who post on my blog. I have the blog to spark conversation. People comment and we can end up in offline discussions, phone calls, and a few real, live friendships. It’s the people who share ideas, commentary, and interaction I think of fondly. The rest, I haven’t met yet.

You certainly can make friends over e-mail. I was making friends by e-mail before you were old enough to type. But it happens by actually paying personal attention.

Here’s a quick tutorial:

  1. Meet someone online.
  2. Find out about a shared interest.
  3. Ask a question so you learn something about them.
  4. Ask another question.
  5. Ask another question.
  6. If they keep responding, they’ll eventually ask you a question, too. If this sequence goes on long enough, you’ll be forming a connection.
  7. Give them a phone call sometime. Find out if you hit it off by voice.
  8. … now you just might have the beginnings of real friendship. The “friend” link was the first step, not the last.

Friendship happens through conversation, through shared ideas, emotion, experience. The information technology is there to make the human connection easier, not to replace it. In other words: use an automated system to remind you of a birthday, but write the darned e-mail yourself.

Social media confuses relationships and databases…

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