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Social Capital: Facebook vs. Face-to-Face Friends

Social Capital:  Facebook vs. Face-to-Face Friends

On New Years Day Paul and I sat in a large booth at Juan’s Flying Burrito in New Orleans with six of the most amazing women I’ve ever known: the group of girls I met when I was twenty-three years old and had just moved to New Orleans. These are the girls I commiserated with during my first year of teaching in an overcrowded and dysfunctional school. These are the girls I evacuated with when Hurricane Katrina hit, and the girls I partied with when the Saints won the Superbowl. They are the girls I laughed with and danced with for the six fun-packed years I lived in New Orleans, and they were there for me when my world was shattered by a romance gone wrong. In other words, they are some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Or, at least, they were.

Because, as we sat down at Juan’s for this impromptu reunion, I realized that I hadn’t talked to any of them in almost two years. I didn’t know what was going on in their lives, and they didn’t know what was going on in mine. So as our margaritas were arriving, I suggested we go around the table and each give an update about ourselves.

“I know,” someone said – either Chana or Meg, I think – “let’s give the update for someone else.”

And so Chana began. “Hi, my name is Meg,” she said, “and I am a super awesome person who just bought an adorable house on Bayou St. John. I work as a fifth grade teacher, and my classroom looks super amazing, as it should, since I spent approximately a million hours working on it.”

Meg made a face, and everyone laughed, and the most entertaining dinner conversation ensued. It was fascinating to hear what everyone was doing from the perspective of their close friends.

“Hi, my name is Andrea,” Meg said at one point, “and I would never normally say this, but some people call me the Mayor of New Orleans.”

“No,” Andrea shook her head, her face flushed. “No, they don’t.”

“Yes, they do,” Meg continued. “And it’s because my non-profit organization is super successful and is doing amazing things for the city of New Orleans.”

There’s nothing more fun than bragging about how awesome your friends are, except for maybe listening to your friends brag about you.

Me and some of my New Orleans friends -- Mardi Gras 2009

Me and some of my New Orleans friends — Mardi Gras 2009

When it was my turn, Paul had to give my update because he was the only one who knew what was going on with me. And he did an admirable job considering that I had plunked the poor, introverted boy into a bustling mass of boisterous girls.

I was grateful to him for being a good sport, but there was part of me that was sad I didn’t have a girl-friend to give my update. In Seattle, Paul and I have met a few people, but we don’t really have any close friends, and although I want to keep my connections with old friends in New Orleans and DC, it’s really hard when I don’t live in the same city and I only see them once every two years, if that.

After dinner, we decided to head to Meg’s so I could check out her new house.

“Oh, by the way,” Michelle said, “for all ya’ll homeowners, someone gave me a recommendation for a handyman.”

“One of us should try him out first, to make sure he’s good,” Chana said. “And if he is, we can pass him around.”

At Meg’s house, the girls started talking about a mutual friend who’d recently had a baby. Her husband had to go out of town over the holidays, and she needed help, so they had rallied and divided up the days she needed childcare amongst themselves.

It was so sweet, but all of a sudden, I felt like crying. In Seattle, Paul and I have no one we can ask favors of, no one we can turn to in an emergency.

I started thinking about social capital – the benefits that come from being a part of a social network. Friends share information (like handymen recommendations) and give support that is hard to get elsewhere.  I remember Andrea picking me up after I got my wisdom teeth pulled, I remember helping Chana move and taking her to the airport, I remember Meg and Michelle bringing me food when I was in the hospital with a collapsed lung.  When I chose to leave New Orleans, I also made the choice to leave a tight-knit community of friends. And with each move I make (I’ve moved three times this year alone), I am decreasing my social capital.

Paul and I talked about it when we got home. “I don’t know what I should do.  Should I try harder to maintain my friendships with my New Orleans friends?” I asked.  “But no matter what I do, it’s never going to be the same because I don’t live here anymore.” It seemed to me like friendship was a lot like real estate: location, location, location.

The older we get, the harder it is to make friends, and especially to find a close community of like-minded peers. As Americans, we often discount the importance of friends. We are constantly moving, constantly working, not taking time to establish and maintain relationships. And in the process we are decreasing our social capital, so that when we need help, there is no one around willing to give it to us.

“It seems like your writing community has taken the place of your New Orleans friends,” Paul said as I was babbling about social capital. And maybe in some ways that’s true. Because of all the writing conferences I go to, I see my writing friends more often, and because we have common interests, we are often in touch by email – reading each other’s work or asking for advice.

There’s a debate going on right now about whether the Internet and social media increases or decreases social capital. It’s a tough question to answer. In some ways, nothing compares to face-to-face time, which is why I feel my friendships with the New Orleans girls have been fading. On the other hand, facebook and email has helped keep me connected to my writing community, and I have received a lot of writing advice and feedback via the Internet.

It seems that my writing friends – those people who are spending long hours at their computers – are the ones most active in social media. They are the ones who read my blog and comment, and the ones who post often on facebook so that I can keep up with them.

Jeni Stewart, Director of Burlesque Press, and Daniel Wallace -- two important people in my writing community.

Jeni Stewart, Director of Burlesque Press, and Daniel Wallace — two important people in my writing community.

“Eva, why don’t you text?” Chana asked me as we were driving back Uptown from Meg’s house. “You’re always writing these long emails, and I never have time to read them.”

“I don’t have unlimited texts,” I said. “And besides, I’m wordy.”

It’s true that I sometimes write long emails to my New Orleans friends and get text-length responses from them in return. Maybe that’s because they are face-to-face friends. They want an actual conversation instead of an epistolary interaction. Whereas my writer friends are perfectly happy with long, back-and-forth letters.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Paul and I will probably be moving again within the year, so we won’t be able to build up much social capital here in Seattle. I guess for now, I just have to understand and accept that the nature of friendships change, and I should be thankful that social media has given me a way to keep in touch with my writing community. I think they provide a lot more support than I even realize.

Me and Paul with some of my writing friends at the recent Burlesque Press conference.

Me and Paul with some of my writing friends at the recent Burlesque Press conference.

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About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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