Close Strangers: Face-to-Facebook

Writer Jill Murphy is crisscrossing the country to have coffee in person with all of her Facebook friends (there are 379).

She interviews as research for a book she is working on a book about Facebook’s impact on relationships.

Here is Part One of My Interview with “My Close Strangers” writer Jill Murphy

Me: What do you want to get out of face-to-face meetings with your “friends” that you couldn’t get from them through an e-mail exchange?

JM: The idea was instigated, in part, by a four-hour cup of coffee with an old high school friend.

When we connected on Facebook, she asked me if I wanted to meet for coffee, it’s what she does whenever she gets a new friend. A few months later, on my next trip to New York, we met in the city. It was a special afternoon. We’d both just walked away from successful yet unfulfilling careers.

We were both sorting out what to do next. It was serendipitous to connect with someone else having a mid life crisis in her mid 30’s. The fact that we’d already shared a significant phase of life added unexpected richness to the new relationship forged that day.

Meeting her made me curious about the others in my life whom I knew but didn’t really know. There were real stories behind the little pictures, I wanted to hear them.

E-mail is great (I couldn’t live without it), but it isn’t a replacement for sitting with someone, for hearing the way they laugh or seeing how they play with the coffee stirrer or if they look at attractive women when they walk by a table.

I don’t have an agenda or thesis to test; I just want to see what happens when I sit down with people and talk about what it means to be connected in this new way. And, one of the many beauties of this project, sometimes it is beer!

ME: In your recent post “Brassy tack,” you talk about our cultural disdain for free time, which manifests in that FRIEND who seems to have all the time in the world to comment on your vaca pics, no matter how good of a friend those friends really are.

JM: The Brassy Tack post was hard to write. It was personal but it wasn’t just about me. It was about the broader way we think about friendliness on Facebook and in life. I wanted to reframe how we engage intentions.

I’ve been a little surprised by the cynicism some people have about the way others interact online. We could all do with a little less judgement, we tend to be such harsh critics of each other without any sense of context about people or their lives. We make assumptions and read things into everything. This leads to Facebook creating a lot of surreptitious relational chaos. After sitting with over 40 people, I realize how tough we all are on ourselves: we’d all be so much better off if we simply eased up.

I do want to be clear about one thing. I differentiate between what one person called the “all the time talkers” and those who comment and engage on other’s people’s stuff. No one likes the people who post about themselves non-stop, especially the “Debbie Downers” and the braggarts.

On the flip side, everyone likes to have their posts and pictures commented on yet many are suspicious of the time investment or motives of the people who do that. It’s just one of the interesting paradoxes emerging from this process.

ME: Many of us have found old high school or college friends on Facebook. What do you see is the impact on our psyches when we reconnect — possibly in some intimate way — with people we had already said good-bye to?

JM: How people deal with the ghosts of high school past very much depends on the person. Many have talked about how being connected to high school friends churns their old insecurities and inhibits their Facebook interaction. For others, it’s almost redemptive to be able to reengage with that time and those people as an adult. One person said seeing everyone on Facebook made him happy he didn’t waste the time or the money on going to a reunion.

I’ve had moments of terrible insecurity that I didn’t expect. For me, the sharpest came in the experience of friending a particular person who in 7th grade passed a note telling her friend how she had to sit next to “Jill Murphy (yuck!)”

Because 7th grade is a particularly mean age for most, one of the boys showed me – and everyone else – the note. I still remember what the letters looked like on the page and how publicly embarrassed I was.

The girl and I ran in different social circles so we got through the rest school without much interaction. More than 20 years later, we’re both on Facebook. We’re friends with scads of the same people but not with each other. After a few months, it’s clear we have similar interests and we had some interesting interactions on other people’s pages. Yet, every time I saw her name, I thought “Jill Murphy (yuck!)” and I didn’t friend her for fear she still didn’t like me. It’s embarassing to admit. I’m not sure if I held a grudge so much as I held the hurt.

One day, I just decided it was well past the time to be over it. I needed to extend the request and if she wasn’t interested, so be it. She instantly accepted. We ended up in the same city and we’ve become quite close friends. The relationship is very important to me and it wouldn’t have happened without Facebook.

It also stands as a reminder that we all have to take responsibility for getting over things and for being true to who we are as formed adults, not reverting to the patterns and pathologies of our youth.

Facebook can be salt in old wounds or a second chance to appreciate someone with whom you share an important generational connection. The bigger question that looms is what does it mean for kids who never leave their high school friends behind? For my generation, we had that coming of age experience of going off to college. We transitioned out of high school relationships and in the process created space to define or redefine ourselves.

(The current) generation of kids is the first to be eternally connected online. I’m deeply curious what the perpetual connection is going to do to them. I’m glad I didn’t have to contend with carrying my old self and my old relationships with me through the whole of my life. I needed the 20-year break!

I’ll continue this interview with Jill Murphy tomorrow! She’ll discuss Facebook addiction, unfriending, and more!

Jill blogs her experience at

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