At the very least, a friend is someone you know. In the world of social media, it’s someone whose face you recognize and can name. You might have 568 friends on Facebook, but you aren’t actually real friends with all of them, are you?
The thing about social media is that if you spend any time on it, the names which pop up on your friends’ likes, comments, tags and timelines, over time, become familiar, a bit like the frequent guests you see arriving at a neighbour’s weekend socials. A random name, say Sufjian Stevens, if seen often enough on posts in your daily scroll, no longer stays strange.
It’s not the same as a byline of a reporter in the local newspaper. I mean, if you read The New York Times, it’s highly likely the name Maureen Dowd is as familiar as your grandmother’s name. The thing about social media is that random names cumulatively acquire a personality simply through repetitive likes, tags, and comments to different kinds of posts or status updates. Even inane comments like “LOL!” or (checking my feed for current examples now) “super like!” or “wow . . . all u can eat” is sufficient for nobody to gain a presence in the shadowy world of virtual reality.
A female name, which appears to like every activity of a friend’s Facebook posts — what he ate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper, what he ate for breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper on vacation in Bali, how many kilometres he jogged as broadcasted by Runkeeper, the view from an airplane window flying home from Bali — this name pops up on your newsfeed too, and the name becomes familiar, like the names of dishes on the menu of a much-frequented restaurant. You know the joint serves Chicken Kiev, you just haven’t tried it.
There must be a better metaphor than that, but I’m writing under the gun. So. Names of friends’ friends are added to your list of acquaintances, it’s just you haven’t met them yet. And if you were finally introduced, say at a book launch or some one-off event, it would feel like you were meeting someone you heard a lot about before.
These are your shadow friends.
Shadow friends are people who, if they tweet, pin, Instagram, and Facebook often, have created a virtual version of themselves that is almost three-dimensional in a non-dimensional world. So don’t be surprised if you were out shopping with an Instagramming best friend and she bumps into her friend, who then recognises you from the selfies your Instagramming friend has posted over the last eleven months. It’s unsettling, to be recognized by a total stranger, and when that stranger displays knowledge you thought fairly private — like the time you and Instagram friend had supper in a dinky coffeeshop in Chinatown — well, this is what happens when virtual and real worlds collide.
Apart from causing virtual feelings of deja vu — I’ve seen that guy somewhere, I just can’t figure out where — shadow friends can be useful.
A while ago, a friend of my sixteen-year-old son dropped his wallet at Burger Shack, which, as its name suggests, is a cheap and cheerful hangout place for students. Shelby (not her real name) from church went to Burger Shack that same day and picked up said wallet, opened it, and recognized the ID as one of my son’s Facebook friends.
Shelby told my son about the wallet, who then gave his wallet-bereft friend the good news. So you see, shadow friends aren’t always creepy.
The grateful friend then expressed an interest in meeting Shelby. But Shelby, only 15, demurred. Now that, she said, would be creepy.
What’s your experience with shadow friends? Have they invaded your real world yet? Leave a comment!