(CNN) — Facebook — and all of social media for that matter — is all about connecting and reconnecting with friends. Or at least we like to think it is.
If you really wanted to reconnect with someone (and not just surf their wedding photos or see which recent romantic comedies they liked), you would pick up the phone. You would get in the car and drive.
What Facebook — and again, all of social media — is really all about is connecting and reconnecting with friends … from a comfortable distance.
*scrolls News Feed* “Wow, sounds like my old seventh-grade science teacher is really into yoga. Well that’s enough of that.” *scrolls News Feed*
But photographer Tanja Hollander has a much more social approach to social media.
The Maine resident has been traveling the country to visit each one of her more than 600 Facebook friends. She hatched the plan on New Year’s Eve 2010 with what she estimates was “about $50 in my bank account.”
So far, so good. Hollander has followed through across “43 states, 97 cities, 11 countries and four continents” on a social media adventure funded largely by sales of her portraits and, as she puts it, “just hustling.”
Whether “trying to find friends with frequent flyer miles or gas cards” or old-fashioned bartering, such as swapping a meal for a picture, she’s traversed her personal social graph.
At each stop, Hollander spends a day or more reconnecting (the real kind) with friends and acquaintances who span a lifetime and takes a portrait of her host as part of her “Are You Really My Friend?” project.
“I think the thing that’s surprised me the most is how incredibly kind and generous every single person has been,” she said.
“They have all welcomed me into their homes — from friends to strangers, they even have dinner waiting for me. That’s unreal,” she said with a laugh. “It still surprises me. I was not expecting that at all!”
Her unofficial status as America’s First Houseguest, at a time when so many of us casually invite people into our lives digitally but are hardly any more likely to invite them into our homes, has allowed Hollander to transcend the superficial bond that’s forged with a click of the “Add Friend” button.
“That was sort of the foundation” for this social experiment, she said. “I was thinking about what a real friend is: Somebody that you have over for dinner, that you drank too much red wine with, that you can argue about art or politics or whatever and still be friends in the morning. So it was really important to me that I go to people and their homes. There’s something about the intimacy of home and the intimacy of the portrait.”
“I found (my friends) much more interesting in real life,” she added. For all the talk about how people present false online personas, a “digital dualism,” Hollander says that at each stop, her Facebook-borne expectations have met reality.
“People want to make these blanket statements about social media relationships, but I just don’t think you can. As far as people pretending to be what they’re not, I haven’t seen that at all,” she reported from the new media front lines — which on this day was doubling as the blueberry bushes outside of her home.
“There are things people (I’ve visited) aren’t sharing online, thankfully — like miscarriages or bad breakups — that I didn’t know about.”
But that’s how friendships have always worked, online and offline. “You don’t just whip out your wallet and show co-workers pictures of you partying the night before. We didn’t start curating just because Facebook existed,” she explained. “We’ve been curating forever.”
The artist’s ultimate road trip began with a stay in Washington that included a personal tour of the West Wing from her host. Since then, she’s been welcomed with surprising warmth by a Texas photography client whom she knew only professionally, picked up a friendship right where it left off 20 years ago with a college friend in Oregon and has had two tours living inside another friend’s converted linen truck.
“That was one of my all-time favorites, the Type Truck. She turned it into a letterpress studio and drove around the country for a year doing workshops. She had converted it to have a bunk in the back. The truck was her home for that year. Her and her boyfriend settled down and moved to New Mexico. When I came out to visit, the truck was their guest room, so I got to stay in the truck for a week, which was awesome!”
And other experiences we miss out on by keeping long-distance friendships limited to “Happy birthday!” Wall posts and “Liking” photos of your friend’s adorable children, whom we’re a bit embarrassed to have never met in person.
Not that those “keeping in touch” interactions don’t still carry a benefit, even for someone who has far exceeded them.
“Social media makes things more accessible, so you know more,” Hollander said. “But I don’t necessarily think that helps or hurts friendships; it’s just that you have access to people, so it’s better. I can’t say that my best friend from kindergarten, who I still adore, I don’t think we’re better friends because of Facebook. But it’s great for me because I get to see her kids growing up.”
As for digital dualism, she says social media are just “a different way to communicate, not a different kind of relationship. Everybody wants to talk about these two different worlds — virtual and real life — but I don’t think they’re that separate.”
Hollander has already displayed her portrait project at the Portland Museum of Art and recently confirmed a show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. And yes, she’s on Facebook.
By Jonathan Anker
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