© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

Legless Cowboys Start No Fires

Dear Friend,

I’m absolutely delighted to be honored by the gift of your companionship for yet another whirl around the sun. The similar windows through which we see the the universe – framed by our comparable analytical perspectives, tastes, values, ideologies, convictions to logic, etc. – as well as our shared experiences, of course, are no doubt the very fountainhead of the friendship this letter hopefully celebrates, and over the last year I have been permitted to learn through your insights into the experiences of your life almost as completely as if I had experienced them myself, therefore growing, nay evolving, into a more intelligent and fully realized individual through merely the existence of our association. I can only hope that I have been sporadically, if not accidentally, reciprocal. Through the inherent, empathetic connection of such a relationship, I can recognize and appreciate the serious value you place on actual human bonds, on the unrivaled complexity and emotional impact of human interaction, and sincere, unaffected displays of gratitude; in other words, I dig how much you dig your friends. I also recognize that you’re often endearingly sensitive and, dare I say – a dare I take, of course, based upon the strength and intimacy of our friendship – easily dispirited when faced with the feigned and casual interactions to which the modern, ‘connected’ world has become so accustomed. It is precisely because of this empathy for your relational convictions that I am pulled to words by a fraternal obligation to prepare you, and to apologize in advance, for all the schmucks that are going to wish you a Happy Birthday on Facebook.

 

An anthropological aside as an early birthday gift: ancient American’s used a ‘pen’ and would trace their neighborly sentiments (or, more often, would settle for the pre-printed, generic sentiments of another; relational laziness is by no means a recent phenomenon) in ‘ink’ on a piece of folded and often decorated ‘paper’ that they had purchased specifically for this purpose, which they would then place into yet another piece of folded paper, whose specific folding deemed it an ‘envelope’, on which several, more technical inkings and a ‘stamp’ would be placed, and the entire package, known as a ‘birthday card’ would be physically walked to the nearest mailbox, often so distant as the end of the driveway, and deposited at a time hopefully calculated so as to be delivered on or around the recipient’s annual day of celebration, a date which had, over the course of the friendship, not only been obtained through shared experiences or conversation but had been preserved, and in some cases even memorized, with the specific, premeditated intention of purchasing, folding, inking, stamping, and depositing, all so their friend would feel appreciated at minimum once per year.

It’s going to be difficult to see the percentage of your ‘friends’ that won’t call, email, or even send you a text message and will effortlessly revert to sending your birthday toast with a few murine clicks in a mindless, cursory part of their morning routine. They won’t consider the fact that FB’s various automatic reminders and all-encompassing social ‘connections’ remove the essential emotion and human energy exchanged when participating in real interactions, that it loosens the adhesive of shared experience, that it blatantly overlooks the frenessence of human interaction. Frenessence, if you recall from a previous discussion (although I believe we had both quaffed a few tee many martooni’s by the time this specific topic arose, so I won’t be offended if you don’t remember; no frenessence displaced) is the name we created for the hypothetical and no doubt ethereal building block of friendship – what amino acids are to proteins, what atoms are to, well, everything. The ‘friends’ that wish you well because of the reminder date in the corner of their social hub insist upon diluting what little frenessence is left between you, and by definition whatever relationship into which the frenessence has so far coalesced. The digital alert removes the need for remembrance, for occasional psychological maintenance, of which frenessence subtly reminds us in times of heightened amicability among companions – in other words, when you find yourself proud of your choice in friends, you feel an innate desire to show them some sign of appreciation, be it a handshake, playful rib, or endearing letter (ahem); frenessence is responsible for this feeling. By having your birthday light up before your ‘friends’’ somnambulant eyes, the only effort said ‘friend’ places in their appreciative gesture is finding a combination of birthday-related words that hasn’t yet been strung together and ‘posted’ by some other ‘friend’. Happy birthday! Happy B-day! Enjoy your birthday! Getting older! Make a wish! Woo, birthdays! Yay, friends! Why not set an automatic email to send itself once a year with a dime-store celebratory message? If technical ease and convenience are prerequisites for connecting with a ‘friend’, why send them a greeting at all, since you’ll probably see them again soon, and especially since such a cursory salutation does little to hide, and even highlights, the laziness with which it was proffered?

As a birthday wisher and friend, it’s almost embarrassing to have your wish peppered among the wishes of such close ‘friends’ as the gangly hipster from the wishee’s community college biology class, that cross-eyed girl the wishee worked alongside for a few weeks during the summer after high school, and the wishee’s ex-roommate’s cousin that crashed for a weekend on the wishee’s couch and smelled like old potatoes and feet? Terrifyingly, to refrain from doing so would exclude the wisher from the group the wishee has openly designated ‘friends’, so does the wisher have to follow the apparent group protocol in order to be so considered? Which is more selfish, to want your wish to stand out to the wishee, or to want to feel included in the category of the wishee’s ‘friends’? Who is this wish really about? This sort of branded, convoluted ‘friend’ship breeds insecurity in the wisher/wishee relationship. So is our growing collective insecurity in the real world a product of this type of ‘social’ interaction’s dehumanizing effects on actual, sentimental and emotional exchanges?

These notions and fears are the reason that we have to clarify the word ‘friend’ when referring to a person of such status; “He’s my friend on Facebook,” as opposed to the heretofore satisfactory, “He’s a friend of mine,” leads to a divisive shift in the definition(s) of the word used to expresses one of the basest and most instinctual necessities for our very species’ perpetuation. I like to assume that most individuals would lay down their life for someone whom they consider a real, true friend – I clarify the word begrudgingly; I wouldn’t give up my life for most of my acquaintances, though the few friends I have are as valuable to me as siblings – but in the same breath I also assume that most individuals (including myself) wouldn’t go to the trouble of sending the great majority of their ‘friends’ a text message on that ‘friend’s’ birthday, automatic reminder or not, a feature of FB that should be the indefinitely removed, or at least voluntarily disabled out of some small sense of fraternal dignity and a responsibility to remind your own self, thank you very much, of your friend’s upcoming occasion. This, of course, will never occur, least of all because people are too consumed with all of their other networking, social and otherwise, and would just assume have every ‘friend’s’ birthday pointed out to them, allowing the prospective wisher to decide whether or not the relationship to the wishee warrants a wish in the first place. Happy bday. Hope you have a great one. In essence, these decisions force the wishee to rank, in a sense, the level of their respective ‘friends’ – who gets a text, who gets a call, who merely gets a FB message – as opposed to learning through shared experience and determining organically which friends warrant an appreciative salutation at least once a year; a decision, when forced upon the decider in excess day after day for so very many ‘friends’, inherently augurs a greater sense of loneliness – the more kinds of cereal you have to choose from, the more cereal is neglected when you realize there are only a handful of cereals you genuinely prefer. This paradox is the first glimpse into the reality that FB is ingeniously designed to give the user the sense that they possess more friends than they actually possess, all while assuming the observational intelligence of the user is low enough to miss, or if they do notice, ignore, the digital, flashing, liking, poking spectacle of our collective loneliness.

Isn’t it frightening how disconnected our connections are?

You and I, of course, know that FB would never deactivate the birthday reminder function, but what of individuals who refuse to input their dates of birth into their excessively complete profile? Why is that relevant, other than as bait to invite almost obligatory wishes on the entered date? The act of entering birth dates into such an automated ‘friend’-prompting system smacks of desperation and a need for attention, and seems the web-based equivalent of standing in a mass of people and swinging your arms overhead upon realizing there is a camera somewhere filming the crowd – the desire to stand out from a group that you’ve opted to stand in; it is the acquiescence to being just one set of flailing arms among a sea of waves, it is the unfortunate psychological confusion between “I’m on TV!” and “People want to see me,” and it is so very easy to allow those empty wishes, that fleeting glimpse of yourself at a football game flailing your arms at the camera, to substitute for a genuine display of humanistic affection, or a sense of individuality. But we can’t lie to ourselves. We have to be strong. The average person wouldn’t remove their date of birth from their FB profile because of the inherent loneliness they might encounter upon realizing how many people wouldn’t know (as opposed to wouldn’t remember, since your ‘friends’ aren’t capable of forgetting something that most of them couldn’t guess with three-hundred and sixty-four guesses), and thus wouldn’t send the appropriate birthday wish in plain and arrogant view for all to see. As with the boatloads of cereal, when hundreds of ‘friends’ whom you ‘see’ everyday don’t wish you a happy birthday because they weren’t instructed to do so, the sense of closeness and kinship that FB is attempting to manufacture is not only negated but ultimately, and none-too-subtly, reversed.

I hope you don’t think me so naive as to assume that we would ever allow FB to eradicate real human relationships, or that the issue could be remedied by a simple change in the title FB gives an individual’s online contacts, just as I don’t think you so blind as not to see the way in which an imbalance in online versus frenessenced interaction can denigrate what little human connection we still possess. Consider this scenario: You run into a high-school classmate whom you haven’t seen in years, and who’s name, were it not for their constant FB ‘updates’, would have easily slipped from your mind years past, but because of those same updates, you are more than aware of the ‘friend’s’ three children and their grades and every sniffle, their grandmother’s broken hip, their troubles at work, prayer requests, clipped coupons, and irregular bowel movements, rendering any ‘catching up’ completely superfluous. Thankfully, there’s always the weather. Because of the abundance of ‘interaction’ online, its physical counterpart is left unneeded and, therefore, frenessenceless. So by replacing real, genuine interplay with its frenessenceless, more convenient equivalent, FB actually devalues – in extreme cases even negates – the real version of the act it is replacing. Who needs a pianist when player pianos exist? Consider burning every copy of Don Quixote upon the arrival of the ebook, and consider generations later, when every ebook is erased by a stray solar flare or worse, and not even an effluvial memory of the knight errant remains. Taken too far, which we as humans are wont to do, this logic would require us to kill a horse for every purchased car. And cowboys would have been legless.

I would venture to assume that the rise in ADD/ADHD diagnoses and the prevalence of the ’26 is the new 21’ meme are both byproducts of our embracement and reliance on technology, with which we eschew any sense of pragmatism concerning the occasional and often bitter loneliness that is an inherent part of individual life. Cowboys did not poke their friends, nor ‘friend’ their pokes, as the case may be. Loneliness wasn’t a disease to be inoculated against, but a fact of life, like all others, meant to be not only accepted but embraced. In these modern times introversion is somehow viewed in a negative light, blurring the definitions of ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’, and is often spurned in a society where immense intelligence is seen as strange, like an extra limb, as opposed to reverential, and the exploratory, questioning nature of man (the individual) is therefore stifled by the notion that having more people around is better than having fewer.

Frenessence is finite, as is any energy, since it is never created nor destroyed, and therefore takes infinitely longer to transfer from ‘friend’ to ‘friend’ to ‘friend’ to ‘friend’ to ‘friend’ than to simply bounce back and forth between two points, or even remain still, kinetic and pulsing, amplifying the enlightenment-seeking inclination of man. At the same time, the amount of information that young people are expected to process – as opposed to participating in real, stable relationships (we all had to rely on obtained knowledge and the knowledge of those around us before the age of online interactions) – has exponentially increased over the last century with the influx of technology and instant information, thus delaying the social maturation of our great nation’s young people, meanwhile devaluing the few relationships they allow themselves to have between bursts of texts, mentions, alerts and notifications. The evolution of technology brings with it the devolution of social interactions, and permits us to pretend that this kind of loneliness doesn’t exist by masking it with a thin veneer of ‘friends’, reassuring the informationally-bombarded user that their ‘friends’ are all right here, only a few clicks away, so there’s no need to feel so lonely. Just be sure to enter your birthday. And your favorite movies. And books. And your political and religious prerogatives. Cheat. Forget the frenessence. Give away every minute detail about yourself so your ‘friends’ (people who wouldn’t be considered acquaintances by the actual definition) don’t have to work or interact with you in order to gain some insight into your life, so you don’t have to go through the trouble of conversation and shared experience that is more a vital part of a strong relational bond than is the exchanged information the bond is created around. Transform yourself into a farrago of quotes and idioms that anyone can gloss over before finishing a cup of coffee.

Are we okay with this?

It’s obviously understood that the criteria for accepting someone as a ‘friend’ is radically different from the organic promotion of someone previously considered an acquaintance, and rightly so. If this were not the case, every friend you have would be so regarded simply because you recognize their name, or vaguely recall having met them or one of their friends. We do not possess the time or capacity to maintain active human relationships with so many people, not if we have any intention of getting anything else done, anyway. At what point does an individual’s lack of ‘friend’ vetting constitute merely a list of people the individual has met, since they so easily proffer their ‘friend’ship to anyone with whom they’ve crossed paths? There is a thin line between a fan page and an uber-‘friended’ user, the line’s existence lying solely in the discrepancy between a fan page’s lack of permission needed to ‘like’ an individual or group, versus two user’s mutual agreement to technologically ‘connect’ with one another. It’s the difference between a fondness for someone and their reciprocated appreciation, or walking into a surprise party as opposed to inviting every ‘friend’ on the list to your self-thrown birthday bash. Logistical infeasibility is enough to diminish even further what little frenessence exists in an online invitation; if the six hundred invited guests actually show up to the 2-bedroom apartment you share with your cousin, five hundred and seventy-six of them will be rebuffed at the door, so the invitations are necessarily sent out with the understanding that most of the guests will not be able to attend, in which lies a certain emptiness into and of itself. The invitee who obviously cannot attend due to geographical or situational circumstances might be glad to be included, but also cannot help but smell the effluvium of perfunctory obligation, which in turn derides whatever frenessence that may exist in the relationship. The inviter, of course, is open to accusations of laziness at best or shameless attention-whoring at worst. Because of the lack of effort placed in selecting an enjoyable and compatible group of friends for a celebratory evening, there is no opportunity for frenessence to coalesce among the invited, I.e. everyone. That sort of futile, thinly spread attempt at human connection is exactly what FB attempts to accomplish between its network of 900 million ‘friends’. I hope you can enlighten me with your opinion on which is more frightening: that our society necessitated such a diaphanous commodity into existence, or that we all have no problem averting our eyes to how easily we can see through it, at how there are so many strangers among all of these friends, at how there is a new kind of loneliness among all of these people? You can’t light a fire by waving two sticks in the air. They have to touch. Any cowboy knows that.

Facebook cannot be permitted to depreciate the value of frenessenced interaction the way we have allowed Google to diminish the value of intelligence, and the desire to consume and retain knowledge. In our emptily-sophisticated iPhone culture, information is often misnomered and even touted as intellect, in the form of a pocket-sized internet connection. Actual intelligence does not rely on the maintenance and trajectory of satellites, and its nationwide devaluation is a harbinger of such plagues as the neglect of our children’s education, increased aggression and violence, the diminution of compassion, and the literal belief in illogical, anachronistic ideologies. Does any of this sound familiar? We cannot rely solely on technology for enlightenment or kinship in an age of pageless books and ‘friends’ that aren’t friends.

As with any diabolical antagonist, FB’s profiteering from the demolition of humanity’s infrastructure does not necessarily stem from motivations of pure evil; that is to say, it even has its occasional conveniences as a by-product of so many ‘connections’ (the absence of the word ‘benefit’ is purposeful), and is perfect for fan pages, companies, artists, the quick dispersal of pertinent information, and the organization of larger collective movements or gatherings. It’s a great way for distant families to stay in touch, and allows for the sharing of ideas in the hopes that the shared information might touch or enlighten a ‘friend’ the way it touched or enlightened the sharer. However, any commodity is best valued in moderation, as you well know, and FB not only enables but instigates sharers to inundate their ‘friends’ with often mundane or what should be embarrassing photographs and ‘status updates’ that range from the narcoleptically banal to the constitution-stretching. The ‘timeline’ does to the moments of an individual’s life what a profusion of pictures does to a photograph’s power of nostalgic evocation, and what perpetual commentary on a sharer’s daily minutiae does to the interest the sharer’s ‘friends’ have in reading it. It’s a shame, too, considering that photographs, and especially comments and ideas, are the only semblance of actual humanity that can be gleaned from any single internet page, that that humanity, our essential frenessence, is being overlooked by the reliance on the method of communication as opposed to the ideas communicated.

I know, it’s scary. We have all developed a tacit understanding, brought into vivid view by our misuse of Facebook, of how common and lonely and boring all of our ‘friends’ (present company, both you and I, included, of course) really are, which isn’t a negative for highlighting our egotistic instincts, but a positive for forcing us to look at who we are, to confront and confound our own demons, to build up kinetic frenessence and therefore the value we place on it and the discernment with which we offer it, because as individuals, by definition, we are alone. We must understand the reality that every single one of us, you and me and all our friends, and all of their friends, at some point, is a solitary cowboy staring into the hisses and glowing spits of a trailside fire. And we have to be okay with that. It makes our interactions, thus our very relationships, that much more precious. As for the line between appreciation and love, don’t get me started. I could write a book. Hopefully, however, the carelessness with which Facebook blatantly flaunts our need for attention in this overpopulated yet lonelier-than-ever world will not go unnoticed, and whose relationship-devolving effects may be controlled, if not completely negated, by our awareness of its inherent flaws. We need to embrace ourselves, let the light that breaks through the cracks shine on ourselves as individuals, so that we possess something that we can consider valuable to bestow upon the friends we cherish, of which I certainly consider you. But if they can’t, oh well. They’re just ‘friends’ of mine, anyway. We’ll still have each other.

Right?

Your friend,

Eric