Facebook told me two things today. The first is that I am a friend of a friend (FOAF) of Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister. The second and more important tiding is a link to the New York Daily News:
James Gandolfini, the New Jersey-bred actor who delighted audiences as mob boss Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos” has died following a massive heart attack in Italy, a source told the Daily News.
Tony Soprano has bought the farm.
Of course, Gandolfini only played Tony Soprano. He was never Soprano himself. And while I never had the opportunity to meet him even in passing, neither have I met Gillard, and possibly neither has my Internet friend who is her “friend.” The question that inevitably posed itself was, who was I closer to between these two people: Gillard or Gandolfini?
In 2007, Tim Berners-Lee proposed the notion of a Giant Global Graph to represent the relationship between human beings, especially over the Internet. The nodes are people and they are tied by properties such as “likes,” “comments,” and shares. “The Giant Global Graph concept seems to have been a significant input in Facebook’s concept and name for their ‘Open Graph’ project and protocol.”
And it may turn out that in terms of that metric, I am probably closer to Tony Soprano than to either James Gandolfini or Julia Gillard. As someone once observed, “celebrities are who we have in common.” And we know more about the characters they play than the celebrities themselves.
Goodbye, Tony Soprano.
You might well ask how one can be better friends with a fictional character than with a live person. But no one sees the slightest absurdity in being Facebook friends with someone they have never met at all. The distinction between who’s real and unreal isn’t always so clear on the Internet. After all, Superman is on Facebook.
Some years ago a poll taken in Britain showed that “a fifth of British teenagers believe Sir Winston Churchill was a fictional character, while many think Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur and Eleanor Rigby were real.” One wonders what it is now.
It is increasingly the case that more people know us through our online presence than we will ever meet in person. Our primary reputations will be online reputations. This was foreseen from the beginning when Peter Steiner observed that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
You could be something else, but it won’t matter. Except perhaps to an older generation that drew silly lines between the virtual and the real. But maybe to the coming generation there will be no difference between the representation and the represented. In that case, except for all but a vanishingly brief instant near the dawn of history, the word “friend” will mean “social network friend.”