Never Let You Go: Friendship in the Facebook Age

September 15, 2010 | 15 3 min read

In August, Atul Gawande published an article in The New Yorker on end of life care which referenced a 2008 study by the Coping with Cancer project that attempted to assess how the manner in which a person dies affects the mental health of the family and friends who watch him go. The study found that the survivors of cancer patients whose last days were spent in mechanized intensive care units tended to suffer post-mortem depression three times more often than the survivors of terminal patients whose last days had been spent at home under hospice care. The implication was that holding on for too long, and in the wrong ways, can disrupt the natural rhythms of grieving.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how this framework—the idea that there are better and worse ways to let someone go—might be applied to the Facebook era of human relations, in which friendships don’t really end so much as they attenuate into superficial voyeurism and token gestures. This past February, for example, I received good wishes (prompted of course by an auto-generated reminder) on my birthday from elementary school acquaintances who I had not spoken with in nearly twenty years (and I’m only 29!). Jake F., who I played Little League with but have not seen since, was one of them: “Hope it’s a good one!” he wrote on my wall.

On a gut level, I couldn’t figure out what to make of this.  Was I supposed to feel happy to hear from long lost Jake? Was I supposed to write back “thanks” as though it were completely natural to be wished a happy birthday by a person whose existence is barely more real to me than a character’s in a novel? There seemed to be no categories or schema in the evolutionarily designed layout of my brain to process an encounter that bore qualities in common with a person coming back from the dead.

This feeling of interpersonal vertigo was particularly acute a few months ago when an item in my newsfeed announced that Josh W. was engaged.  Josh and I had become friends in the first half of the George W. Bush era, during a year in which we taught sixth grade together in New York City. We were the same age and both liked to play basketball and by Columbus Day we were spending a lot of time together. I’d hang out in his classroom in the mornings before the kids arrived and after school we’d sometimes go play pool and drink Budweiser at an Irish bar located improbably in the midst of what by then had become a Latino neighborhood of the Bronx.  We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we never tired of talking about the students we had in common.

When that school year ended, I left teaching and New York to travel. While I was abroad, and then afterwards when I settled in Philadelphia, Josh and I kept in touch over email and occasional phone calls, and a couple times when I was back in New York I looked him up. Those encounters dwindled, though. I was sad when we began to lose touch and I missed the feeling that I associated with the easy period in my life when Josh and I had become friends. But at the same time I was all right with the idea that we weren’t going to be important parts of each other’s lives going forward. Our friendship was tied to a place and a time that had passed and it didn’t diminish how much the friendship had meant to me (or to Josh either, I hope), that we wouldn’t be calling each other up when we were 60 to shoot the shit.

But then there I was, some years after we’d last talked, staring at my computer screen and the news that Josh was going to be getting married.  I saw that a few dozen people “Liked” the announcement and I clicked the thumbs-up icon, but immediately I felt a little ill, like I’d just cheapened the memory of our friendship somehow. I thought about adding a small note—”Congratulations” or “So excited to hear the news!!”—but that seemed off, too.

I could have called Josh, or written him a personal email, but I didn’t, although maybe I should have.  We all trail a line of relationships behind us as we grow older, and we all have our own standards that define when and how we let go of people who were once important in our lives (and when and how we accept being let go of ourselves). I could see why it might be rewarding or interesting or comforting to know that with Facebook you never really need to put a friendship to rest completely. But to me it’s comforting and disorienting in the way of ventilators and feeding tubes that sustain a narrow definition of life long after the real thing has run its course.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. I like your essay and appreciate your point. However, I find it helps to think of Facebook as a friend once described it, “a really clever rolodex.” I never go on Facebook except to send an email to someone or read an email someone has sent to me. I never get the faux birthday wishes and don’t miss them.

  2. This is interesting, and I wonder how much this issue is playing out with younger people. I’m 25, and facebook popped up in my life when I was a sophmore in college. And it didn’t really get going outside of my college network until late college and after I had graduated. So each time I “re-connected” with someone online it was sort of fun. I’ve had no problem declining friendships with people I only knew peripherally in high school. But I wonder, now, if I were a high school senior leaving home for the first time, how it would feel to bring all those facebook friendships right along with me. No distance to redefine yourself, less ability to just move on and the whole tiny social network that growing up gives you gets to follow you, commenting, “liking” and piping up on your birthday. Letting good friendships go, as you’re talking about, becomes even more complicated.

    I’m actually looking forward to the studies that will emerge in five, ten years, tracking online social networking behavior. Right now I feel we are all still clicking around in the dark, no one really understanding the rules to the game.

  3. Margosita- Your point about Facebook, for younger people, not allowing the ‘distance to redefine themselves’ is very interesting and not something I’d thought of. One consequence of not having that distance is that I think it would be harder to not have acts of redefinition be self-conscious, in that you’d have to work hard not to be thinking all the time about how old friends are going to perceive the ‘new you.’

    Thanks very much for reading and for posting such a thoughtful reply.

  4. Sometimes I worry about the way I relate to people now that our friendships have, for the most part, died out. I don’t so much keep in touch with them via facebook as I check up on their profiles to see what they’re doing and where I compare, in terms of progress towards some unknown goal (becoming an adult? building an impressive list of achievements and travels?). And the people I’m friends with, I don’t care so much what they have going on in facebook. I guess it makes sense, as one of the commenters wrote, to think of facebook as a rolodex, but it’s hard to move away from the sort of voyueristic pleasure I, and so many others, take in facebook now…to the degree that it can sometimes be more satisfying to be “friends” with people I don’t like than those I do.

    It’s the false gestures, the ongoing promises to get a coffee/get a drink/chat on skype, that get me more than the birthday wishes. I guess it’s natural to feel some curiosity about what old classmates and friends are doing, but in some cases…or in many cases…there’s a reason we let one another go to begin with.

  5. Contrary to Mr. Hartnett’s concerns, it seems to me there’s very little harm in keeping in touch via facebook with people, even those we may not have seen or had any meaningful contact with in years. In fact, research indicates that an inordinate amount of value exists in those “weak” connections — see the influentual paper/theory by Marc Granovetter called “The Strength of Weak Ties.” (If dense sociology papers aren’t your thing — they certainly aren’t my thing either — this article does a good, simple, job of summarizing my reaction to Mr. Hartnett’s piece: )

    As Nancy Darling says in that article, “A well balanced social network has both types of ties” — i.e., there is importance and value in fostering both strong and weak ties. Perhaps it makes us feel weird to engage in such “superficial voyeurism and token gestures” with virtual strangers from our pasts, but at the same time, that stranger is actually much more likely than our close friends to be the person who provides us with useful information, exposes us to an interesting new idea, or gets us our exciting new job.

    So, for my part, I prefer to embrace these distant connections and the strange new world of easy interactions we find ourselves sharing. Except, of course, for the occasional ex-girlfriend post on facebook. That’s just awkward.

  6. Mr. Hartnett, thanks for the interesting take on the Facebook phenomenon. I’m guessing that some of these commenters grew up at a time when various electronic means of communication allowed them to stay connected w/ friends, peers, colleagues, etc with little/no effort. I think as you poll slightly older generations, the value of facebook changes. I was in high school/college a few years before text messaging and email became a primary form of interaction and as a result I could easily use “distance to redefine” myself in college (thank god). But it makes me wonder if I lost a close friend or two along the way solely as the result of not having Facebook (or the like) to keep that connection intact. A better example might be my parents’ generation where my mother has used Facebook to reconnect with friends from college that she hadn’t seen or talked to in years (and yes, she actually met up with them in person). Another benefit is that Facebook allows us to put friendships on hold when life intervenes and we’re forced to deal with other priorities like family/work – and we have to resort to the occasional impersonal birthday greeting or “liking” a status update a time when that friendship can continue from where it left off.

  7. I don’t want to be “found” and am very cautious about what might turn up if someone were to google me. I periodically google my own name and have had (on two occasions) to contact organizations that were displaying my name in a list of volunteers for the org. It was not supposed to be public info and both organizations took it seriously and made changes. I guess I must admit (!) that I am in my late 60s and find the Facebook phenomenon incomprehensible (why would anyone want to expose their friends, their interests, their pursuits to the wide wide world?).

  8. In college, when facebook first appeared, I experienced this phenomenon that when I “friended” someone, we would stop acknowledging each other in person, as if the friendship evaporated with the “Accept” button.

    I really agree with margosita. I have taken to removing aged friends from my facebook profile using the criterion that if I would not acknowledge the person if I passed them on the street, then I should not be their facebook friend. This isn’t healthy for my friend count or using facebook to publicize things that I publish or want to celebrate – but I doubt that my oblique friends would have been interested anyway…

  9. This is an excellent essay! I have been struggling with the same issues myself. Recently, a college acquaintance I knew for only six months, sent me a friend invite on FB. I ignored it for the very same reasons you outline so eloquently. It’s been years and years since we last talked. I know I have moved on. So superficial “likes” don’t really seem to have much value to me anymore. Margosita’s point about young people not even being allowed to cultivate that distance is a fascinating one. Thank you!

  10. This is a thoughtful piece, with a lot of heart, and a good starting point for discussion. But I have to wonder how it belongs on the Millions? I don’t see a connection to books. Well, other than Face”book”.com?

  11. Daniel, We strive to publish interesting stuff, about books or otherwise. Based on the thought-provoking reception this piece (and other non-book pieces in the past) received, I’d say that we’d be foolish to self-consciously limit ourselves so narrowly. And I don’t think our (admittedly bookish) readers would enjoy the site as much as they do if we stuck to books 100% of the time.

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