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Friendship and Thoroughfares

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Originally submitted by Alex Belsey

The Strand is London’s greatest thoroughfare, its huge volumes of human traffic easily eclipsing the throngs of cabs, cars and buses that provide its restless soundtrack. As a pedestrian on the Strand, the predominant feeling is often one of swimming against a tide of people, one of having to anticipate the movements of the onrushing hordes in order to successfully permeate their ranks and emerge unscathed. At peak hours, the fleet-footed crowds can often become overwhelming, their faces blending into one impersonal mass – so it’s always reassuring when a single face stands out and the surrounding bustle draws away from them, like curtains on a stage, revealing a lone figure upon whom your attention becomes resolutely fixed. It just so happened that one day last week, the face that instantly stood out for me belonged to someone I hadn’t seen since we were fourteen years old.

There was a cagey moment akin to the strange dance performed by pedestrians on a collision course who attempt to counteract the direction that their oncoming adversary may or may not take; as I approached, the two of us briefly jostled from side to side, exchanged wary glances, and then calmed in the knowledge that yes, we did recognise one another. He had already been slowing to that weary half-speed shuffle that can only mean one has arrived at the required bus stop; I had just left the KCL Strand campus and was still palpitating from the shock immersion of a two-hour inaugural French class. It could have been the surge of nervous adrenaline that caused me to greet Richard with a violent cheerfulness that visibly shocked him, yet I quickly relaxed once the necessary pleasantries had been exchanged.

It had just passed six on a muggy Thursday evening and Richard was heading home. I knew from my complicity in Facebook’s global surveillance network that he is now a fully qualified barrister. His two doorstop-sized legal books were balanced atop an empty tin of Celebrations chocolates, the usual home for his wig were it not for the fact that he had to ‘lend it to a friend’. I did not, regrettably, enquire as to the reason for said wig rental. When I congratulated him on his professional success he remained the epitome of modesty, shrugging off any deference with a bashful, ‘it’s a job I guess’.

The two of us had attended a private school in Ipswich but it only took two terms before my parents plucked me, aged twelve, from what they (rightly) believed to be a distractingly unregimented environment. I was relocated to a wonderful state school and Richard and I remained friends for approximately two further years before the stream of communication between us dried up. We reflected on the way in which friendships rarely transcend the stage of our formative years in which they are forged. Hunching his shoulders against the breeze, Richard declared that he really didn’t become the person he is today until the age of eighteen. Cradling his books and empty tin, he confessed to a profound blurriness obscuring the majority of his secondary school memories. Yes, we could reminisce about the quirks of certain teachers and the half-forgotten faces of our prepubescent peers, yet when it came to emotionally inhabiting our younger selves both of us drew a blank. Richard and I became different people and – just like every child is bound to – outgrew our friendships.

Around two years ago, Richard had ‘friended’ me (as he put it) on Facebook, although I have no idea what would have prompted this. Naturally, seeing a request from a former school friend (and, for a time, a close friend at that), I had accepted. But that was as far as any kind of reconnection went; it seems that social networking and its participants are primarily concerned with visibility rather than any kind of meaningful social interaction. I could now view his varied adventures and accomplishments, he could now view mine: nothing else was needed. Once we had exchanged numbers and shook hands, I resumed my journey and headed for Embankment. I was suddenly aware once again of the perambulating tides swelling around me and wondered whether online social networking has become a kind of digital thoroughfare, one that is traversed by a virtual tide of people who are quickly glimpsed and little else.

Everyone I know who regularly uses Facebook does so when heading to either real or virtual destinations, most of them via a smartphone. It seems as if every action, whether it be listening to music, signing an online petition or reconnecting with old friends, must take place via Facebook. I’m aware that many people I am affiliated – not necessarily ‘friends’ – with on Facebook conduct their lives using the site as a thoroughfare because they actively want to be seen; again, adventures and accomplishments. Some, however, have just come to do so unintentionally, perhaps because such behaviour now seems like the accepted protocol. If I am invited to a social event it is almost never by means of a telephone conversation let alone a face-to-face interaction; instead, the invitation arrives as an ‘unread message’. Rather than receiving a phone call whenever it was Richard was reminded of me, I was ‘friended’. I have always imagined social networking to be a tentative and strangely impersonal medium wherever friendships are concerned.

Then I had a surprising experience just three days after my encounter with Richard. Within a few minutes of having logged on to Facebook I received a message from an old school friend, and a primary school friend at that. We exchanged our scattered memories and anecdotes for around an hour. By no means am I suggesting that we two are likely to interact again any time in the next ten or fifteen years; nevertheless, the experience buoyed me somewhat. Just as on the street, a face had stood out amidst the human traffic and a connection, however brief, had been made. If Facebook has become a necessary digital thoroughfare for millions of travellers and virtual commuters, then it has at least retained that core appeal of walking London’s streets: the capacity for surprise. Although I still prefer to smell the fumes.

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