20/11/2015 9:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Sharing With Strangers: The Truth About Facebook 'Friends'

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Girl with headphone checks her social media on her laptop

I have been on Facebook for a number of years and like many others have gone through a whirlwind romance with the social networking site. Over time, it's been something of a love-hate relationship that has now been on the rocks for a while now. Facebook has clearly changed what we mean by friends. The fact is that a "friend" on Facebook could be someone you have had very fleeting contact with or even none with. And to realign our expectations, we need to understand this.

As I glance at my friends' list, I realise that almost 60-70% of the people on it are either virtual contacts or those that I have met socially once or twice. That means that we only know each other through our social updates or blogs -- in essence, very little. We actually have had negligible real-world contact. We haven't grown in a relationship where we have understood each other's flaws and good qualities and accepted them. We gravitated towards each other because we may have enjoyed something we wrote or an update or an article we shared or because we interacted in an FB group. These are the reasons why we friend most people on Facebook these days; sometimes only because they may have a bunch of mutual friends.

"The honeymoon period lasts for as long as we continue to like and support each other's updates/points of view, but things can take a turn for the worse when there is a disagreement..."

I have had a few unsavoury incidents with "friends" on Facebook that led me to some introspection. Facebook, for one, is much more personal than say Twitter. On Twitter everything is public, so when I post I am mindful of the fact that my audience could be just about anyone. But on Facebook, you have the option of not interacting with the public at large. Hence you have your "friends", a cosy cocoon where you feel free to showcase your best and your worst. Therein, lies the problem. Many times the banter, craziness and strong opinions can really rub people the wrong way -- people who don't really know the complete you.

The honeymoon period lasts for as long as we continue to like and support each other's updates/points of view, but things can take a turn for the worse when there is a disagreement of some sort. I have seen pitched battles unfold on comments on status updates. Sometimes complete strangers go after each other with a hatred which would be almost impossible to comprehend in real life. Does the anonymity make us lose control or make us callous? Are we all forgetting our good manners because we have a tool that lets us put out anything we wish to? And then there is the problem of the "sane" voices -- the politically correct ones, those who want to be seen saying the right things.

This is what drives many of us. We actually believe that our voice/view is sane and must be told while the others are obviously "insane" or the word of the season -- intolerant. Hence personal equations increasingly spiral downwards as we go after each other. We see someone we liked show their "weird" side and things start heading downhill. Initial discomfort may lead to dislike and then aversion. The unfollow option is wielded, sometimes restricting or even unfriending and, as I had to do for one person, blocking too.

Let's face it. We are adults with fragile egos and loud mouths. While we talk of respecting freedom of speech or expression, it is in reality only restricted to our own views. And that is where the actual problem lies. Our egos are huge and since we were never really connected beyond the superficial, it is not difficult to unfriend and move on. Of course, that is not to say that it does not hurt. Of course, we smart when we see someone going berserk with rude comments or behind our backs to friends. But, I guess it is all part of belonging to the circus called social media and we do get over it. The crux of the matter is that we actually have expectations that we have from "real" friends and are disappointed when those are not fulfilled. Things like being supported, liked and respected are on top of the list.

"Our egos are huge and since we were never really connected beyond the superficial, it is not difficult to unfriend... that is not to say that it does not hurt."

Suddenly, grappling with questions and my own lack of judgment about people I was naïve enough to trust and share my life with, I feel an aversion to the medium and how it is capable of playing havoc with my emotions. Of course, a handful of people who are my friends, real friends (some of them I haven't yet met), I can see that I am quite understanding and patient with. Even a difference of opinion is shrugged off because there is a real bond, real affection there. But this number is really low.

A little late in the day, I have realised not to have too many expectations or to lay any sort of claim to people who perhaps are just being nice to me virtually. I am aware that it does not take long for that niceness to turn into something unpleasant. With this understanding, I am now very careful before adding people to my friends' list.

It is the classic many times bitten now shy syndrome.

Another thing worth realising is that Facebook is fine for engaging and talking to acquaintances on a warm, sunny day. But the bitter, cold times are when we turn to our real friends and family as we should.

A version of this has been previously published on Rachna says.

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