Social experiment reminds us that online relationships shouldn’t be discredited as shallow
For most of us, the “Suggested Friends” feature on Facebook is something we happily ignore. Filled with friend-of-a-friends, distant family we’ve never heard of, or people we’ve purposely tried to avoid adding, very few people even give it a second glance—let alone travel across the world looking for them.
So what compelled Belgian man Victor Van Rossem to travel over 5,000 miles to meet his Suggested Friend?
You see, Rossem saw an interesting man pop up in his Suggested Friends list. His name was Neal D. Retke: 49 years old (Rossem was 24 at the time), with a long, scraggly beard and living in Texas. At the beginning, Rossem did not understand why Facebook’s algorithm had told them to connect.
“I became fascinated by him. He had a long beard and looked a little unusual. He did art performances and paintings of mythical creatures and strange beasts which only made me more interested in him,” Rossem told The Daily Mail. “He looked like someone I wanted to meet—a very eccentric person.”
So he did exactly that. After Facebook messages went unanswered, Rossem took the next natural step—and flew to Texas.
Rossem plastered Austin with posters that read: “Are you, or have you seen this man? Facebook said we could be friends. Please help!”
But what could compel a person to track down a stranger based off a social media algorithm? Rossem says he wanted to take friendship back “to the real world”—personalize it, I suppose. He ultimately did track down Retke, who (luckily) did not find the whole thing creepy at all. They might even see each other again this summer.
On one hand, I agree with one aspect of Rossem’s idea: that becoming superficial “friends” is so, so easy. A friend acceptance on Facebook. A mutual follow on Twitter. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am—friendship done.
However, I take offense to the idea of bringing something back to the “real world.” Because despite what your parents might have thought, online relationships are—for all intents and purposes—“real.”
I have had an online friendship for over ten years now. It took three years before we would meet, and can sometimes go years before we meet again. For the vast majority of our friendship, we’ve talked exclusively through text. Likewise, for half a year, my romantic relationship—and every other relationship I had based in Montreal—was relegated to Skype.
I can’t help but object to the idea that you need to physically meet someone in order for a relationship to be real. I see countless articles claiming that the Millennial generation is “anti-social” and “attached to their screens,” without the authors taking into account who is on the other side. Does the Internet give us the tools to have hundreds of superficial, “friend accepted” relationships? Yes.
Does the Internet allow us to have deep, meaningful relationships with people all over the world, regardless of age, ethnicity, sexuality or “social status”? A resounding yes.
I appreciate what Rossem was trying to do: to make a friend request more than a click of the button. But not all relationships online are so shallow: next time I travel thousands of miles for someone I’ve only met online, I promise you, it will be for a friend.