Imagine you’re one of a group of friends. Because everyone has busy lives, you usually keep up to date on what’s happening with people in the group through just one of them. He tells you what’s happening and keeps you up to date. Not just with what the other friends have told him, but also gossip about what those friends have said they like and don’t like. (Everyone likes a bit of gossip.)
Sometimes, you all get together, and that’s nice. You get to catch up properly, have fun and have a chat with those friends you don’t see very often.
You go on holiday and take some photos, and you think that your friends might like to see a few of them. But you don’t have time to meet up, and you see the mutual friend every day. So it’s easy to just give him the photos and ask him to pass them on to your other friends. A few friends say that they like them, and he tells you so.
You get to trust the friend, and so you give him some photos to pass around in the group privately. You ask him to make sure that no-one else sees them: particularly not your other friends’ parents. All is well.
Four or five years later, and your group of friends has grown to quite a large number. Each time you pass things around to them, you have to be more and more specific when instructing your mutual friend.
Your friend from a previous job, who you used to see a lot, gets to hear that you don’t share all of your photos with them, and gets offended. They think that they can gossip about you behind your back, but the mutual friend hears it and passes it along to you. Your friendship is damaged.
Then, one day, you realize that your relationship with the mutual friend wasn’t quite as convenient as you thought it was. It seems to be much harder work to keep all of the complicated instructions on which friend can see which photo, and hear which gossip. You start to realize that you don’t hear back from most of the large group of friends; you’re not even sure if some of them are even part of what you have come to think of as “your group” anymore.
So you tell your mutual friend that one of them, from whom you’ve not heard anything for over a year, doesn’t need to be included in your group any more. A couple of days later, you get an email, asking what this erstwhile absentee has done to make you dislike them so much. Another damaged relationship, born of misunderstanding.
Some people don’t ever really join in with the group, or they only ever seem to be asking for sponsorship or making you feel bad for being an omnivore. Some friends like to party a lot, and start sharing a little too much information with the group. So you choose not to keep up with what they’re up to, and find out that you’ve offended them by missing a milestone birthday. Your mutual friend used to keep you up-to-date on that kind of thing, but he took “no news” more literally than you’d intended.
A little while later, and there’s a shock. The mutual friend, who has been a trusted and reliable companion for a few years, suddenly lets you know that he’s using the photos you’ve been giving him in order to promote his own business. He’s in the business of communication, and because you’ve been giving him photos to pass around, you have implied that he is allowed to use them however he likes.
Shocked, you immediately stop giving him any more photos, and vow never to pass photos around in this way again. The difficulty is, that he already has a large collection from your years together, and you can never guarantee that he hasn’t made copies of the ones he’s destroyed on your instruction.
The turning point in the friendship comes when he tells everyone how he’s decided to do some research for his business. To profit from you and to manipulate you, so that he can be more successful. It turns out that he’s not been telling all of you everything, but has been deliberately winding you up one day, and giving you feel-good messages the next. Just to find out what happens.
You break off friendship a couple of days later, however he hangs around for a couple of weeks, flirting, to see if you’ve really made the “right” decision. You were really good friends, saw each other every day, and so it’s really hard not to forgive him. But you have to, because you know what he’s like now, and you know the “friendship” would only get worse and more abusive.
You can’t wait until he is gone from your life. Until you can get back to real conversation with your other friends, without having to wade through pamphlets, newspapers and flashy gimmicks, which your mutual friend can’t stop himself from showing you.
Sound familiar? It should. The mutual friend’s name is Facebook.