Until recently, I thought a BFF was a Before Facebook Friend. It is a senior thing, like David Cameron, the former British prime minister who used to sign off notes to his dearest friends with “LOL,” in the belief that it was an abbreviation for “Lots of love.”
I know different now, of course (as does Cameron, once everyone asked him what he was laughing at), but you see what I mean. BF, a friend was someone you met at school when you were 10, formed a bond with, and stayed close to for the rest of your life.
Or at least, it was for other people. I have always been useless at friendship. When I was a teenager I had two best mates; we met over a mutual passion for Bob Dylan, we did everything and went everywhere together, shared a flat, and were generally inseparable.
But then we grew older, got married (not to each other, obviously; you could not do that then), and went our separate ways to other cities and continents. I have not seen either of them for 40 years.
I am equally fickle with colleagues. Journalism is a tight-knit trade, and the bonds formed under the nightly pressure of producing a newspaper to demanding deadlines appear at the time to be permanent and unbreakable — but they are not, of course. A new job beckons, you move on, “friends for life” are forgotten.
But then Facebook changed the rules. Not only has it restored contact among people who had long ago lost touch, it has redefined friendship. On Facebook, you do not even have to like your “friends.” At the last count I had 306, including three ex-wives, which is definitely stretching it. Constantly, the site throws up another face from the past, another voice, another box of memories opened. The most recent re-established contact was with a bluff, hearty Englishman from the Channel Island of Guernsey, with whom I worked in the 1980s and had not seen since. If you had asked me then, I would have predicted that he would seek out a wealthy farmer’s widow from the west of Ireland and settle down to a life of relative idleness and leisure. Guess what; he did, and he has.
Facebook has made our small worlds bigger. In the old days, sub editors in London newspapers, their shifts over, used to gather in the hostelries of Fleet Street to exchange horror stories about the crimes against the English language perpetrated that day by their reporting colleagues (there is a reason why the collective noun is “a whinge of sub editors”). Now they moan on Facebook groups, and where before there were a few dozen, now they number in the hundreds.
It is a truism that when an online service is free, we are not customers, we are the product. Facebook does indeed have questions to answer about how it monetizes our data, and I could do without the schmaltz of the “Facebook community.” But old friends found again? Give me more.
• Ross Anderson is Arab News’ Dubai bureau chief