Many years ago, I had a painful breakup with what was then my very closest girlfriend. As anyone who's been through it can tell you, the end of a close friendship is every bit as painful as the end of a romantic relationship—perhaps more so, because there's no script to tell you how to handle it. After several years of zero contact, we became Facebook friends, and I was able to appreciate the very limited contact that made possible: While our friendship is history, I can stay loosely up to date on her very full and happy life. When your friendships are strained by conflict, distance or simply the passage of time, the loose contact of social networks and e-mail can keep them on life support against the day when geography or circumstance makes reconnection possible.
During a recent visit to Toronto, I had a chance to see an old friend I hadn't spoken with in years. We hadn't broken up: We'd just gotten jobs, gotten married, gotten kids. We were busy, and we didn't have a lot of time for phone calls or even for Facebook. And that lack of contact made me shy about reaching out. But I took a deep breath and sent an e-mail—and received an enthusiastic response to the possibility of a coffee date. Within five minutes of sitting down together, we were back to the same level of conversational intensity that had fostered our original friendship.
If you want social media to support your friendships, you need to think about both sides of the equation: how to be findable, and how to track down (and keep up with) the friends you want to find in turn. The beauty of these new tools is that they make it easier and easier to handle the logistics of maintaining friendships—you can focus on the part that matters: the emotional connection.
How do you use social media to connect with friends and family? Share your thoughts below.
Alexandra Samuel, PhD, is the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University and the principal of Social Signal, a social media agency that has launched more than 30 online communities. The mother of two young kids, Samuel blogs about how to make technology a meaningful part of your life, work and world. Follow her on Twitter.