Posted on July 22, 2008 at 2:45 pm

I’ve maxed out my Facebook account. I had heard that it was possible to do this, but I didn’t really think it would happen. The other night, I logged in, saw that I had four more Friend requests, and it wouldn’t let me approve them because I already had five thousand Friends. The ceiling is 5,000, which seems like a fairly arbitrary ceiling to me, but there it is and there’s not much within Facebook-land that I can do about it.

Which presents several dilemmas, none of which seem immediately solvable.

I’m capitalizing the word Friend because I am not talking about friends in any traditional sense. It should be obvious to the reader that I do not in fact have five thousand friends. I don’t actually think I could cobble together the names of five thousand people I’ve met in my entire life. Five thousand is a lot of people. And I don’t even like people. No, a Friend is someone who comes upon or searches out my Facebook account and asks to be linked to it. I don’t really know what benefits accrue from this. I myself have asked to be several people’s Facebook Friend, and all that it gets me is the opportunity to see whether they spend more time jerking around on Facebook than I do (the answer is no, with the possible exception of Deborah Abramson). So what you’re really getting with a Facebook Friendship is a sort of approved association with someone; if you’re a fan of Jason Robert Brown, becoming my Facebook Friend confers some kind of status upon you, I guess. You’re not just a fan, you’re not a stalker or a groupie, you’re… well, you’re a Friend. It’s all very meta and Web 2.0 and new-media and of course the kids in my cast of “13” could explain it far better than I just did. Regardless, I am grateful for the fact that anyone desires that association, and clearly it is not an uncommon desire or my account wouldn’t have maxed out. So there’s the news: I’m popular for the first time in my life, and the Facebook Gestapo wants to stop me before I go too far and TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

This all started with Friendster, and that was entirely my wife’s fault. She had a Friendster account and thought it would be fun if I did too; I was very suspicious of the whole social-networking thing, but one night when I was bored in a hotel in Nashville, I set up an account to make her laugh. Within an hour, I had requests from two people I had never met asking if I would approve them as Friendster Friends. I decided that if I were going to do this, I might as well go whole hog, so I accepted them. Then I typed my name into the Search box to see if there was anyone who had me listed as their “favorite music.” I got about four hundred hits. I had my solo album coming out right about that time, so I thought maybe I could use Friendster to get out the word. So I took the next week and sent Friendster Invites to each of those four hundred people (several of whom were entirely fictional entities, but that’s a whole other issue), and most of them, after writing “Is this the real JRB?”, accepted me.

Within a couple of months, though, it seemed that everyone on Friendster was actually from the Philippines. Also, whenever I told anyone I was on Friendster, they said, “Dude, Friendster sucks, you have to get a MySpace page!” So I looked at MySpace. MySpace gave me a total friggin’ headache. I hated it then, I still hate it now. I especially hate how nobody has a real name, it’s all PattiFan and imatosser and BwAyFaCe, like we’re all living in a comic book. I made my decision and I felt comfortable with it: I didn’t want to present myself online in that particular forum. Too messy, too weird, too insidious. So no MySpace. And Friendster was increasingly expecting me to speak Tagalog. It seemed my social networking phase had ended.

Then I got into rehearsal for “13” at the Mark Taper Forum, and I started getting invites from the kids to join Facebook. I was confused, because I had thought Facebook was only for college students (I’d seen some of my USC kids’ pages), but apparently it had opened up and my cast members were among the first to jump on that bandwagon. I didn’t want them to think I was a total drip, so I accepted an invite, and the Facebook drama began.

I was on Facebook well before most of my real friends, and in fact, for the first year I had my account, the majority of my Friends were college kids and high schoolers. It is weird for a married man in his mid-thirties to be establishing relationships with kids in high school, but such lines get blurry very quickly behind the veil of the Internet. Besides which, I wasn’t really interacting with any of these Friends, I was just saying “Confirm” and watching the numbers add up. It was fun to see my account start taking over individual schools; I’d never really heard of Rider College or spoken to anyone at Oklahoma City University, but suddenly, forty students from there were all congregating on my Friend page. I made a rule: as long as the person sending the invite seemed like a verifiable human being (as opposed to a company or a club or a prank – like the nine invites I got from a misspelled Liza “Minelli”), I’d accept them. Why not?

And they piled up. Two hundred, five hundred, one thousand, can I break two thousand? I can! And on and on, so much so that I regularly got messages from people saying “You have 3600 friends? You’re the king of Facebook!” and the like. I enjoyed being the king of Facebook. When I found out that Eric Whitacre had more Friends than I did, I got jealous.

Maybe in the last four months, something strange started happening. People my age started getting on Facebook. People with whom I had gone to college, summer camp, high school, even people I haven’t thought about since the fifth grade started emerging from the cybernetic ether, usually with mortifying pictures from the late 70’s and early 80’s. Facebook went from being a place where I collected fans to a place where I reconnected with my life and began to understand how I became who I am in a much richer context than I had before. I speak often (and write often) of having spent my teenage years being lonely and outcast and unappreciated, but the flow of people who say “I always knew you were a star” and “remember when we wrote a song together in junior high?” and “you gave me some piano lessons when you were sixteen and I still remember what you taught me” suggests that perhaps my perception was not entirely attuned to reality. That’s a massive adjustment to make to my personal history at this relatively late date. It doesn’t mean the social stigmata I felt as a kid were any less real, but it does mean I have to take some responsibility for magnifying and perpetuating their effects. That realization can take some people decades of therapy and lots of money. For me, it took two years and five thousand Friends.

And so my current Facebookian dilemmas. Switching to another site isn’t really an option; how would I get all of my Friends to migrate there? They all like Facebook, that’s how they found me in the first place. And MySpace remains Website Non Grata as far as I’m concerned.

At the same time, I don’t want to lose the chance to connect through Facebook with people who actually have a history with me, or with whom I’m working. More of those high school classmates come out of the woodwork daily, and every day there are show business people with who I am flattered to be able to associate myself (just today, Bartlett Sher accepted my Friend request! Total fangirl geekout! He’s so awesome! Squeeee!). So I have to shed some of my Facebook Friends who are not actually friends so that I can make room for some who are. But how to choose?

There is a Fan Page on Facebook, which is the logical place for people to go who are just fans. The problem is that I’ve already accepted around forty-five hundred people who are just fans, and it feels weird to cut through my Friend list with a virtual scythe just because I’ve now decided to be choosy. Would those forty-five hundred people sign up on my Fan Page or would they feel in some way dissed? Also, I haven’t decided to be choosy, Facebook told me I had to be – I like the occasional random serendipity of exchanging a message or a poke with someone I’ve never met. (Don’t ask me to explain the whole phenomenon of Poking; like everything else about Facebook, it delivers no gratification whatsoever and we’d all cry if they took it away.)

I’ve made some small accommodations until I can figure out a global solution. As far as new Friends go, I’m only accepting people I’ve actually met or who travel in my real-life circles. I hate “ignoring” the other requests, but I don’t know what else to do. And in order to make room for the new Friends, I purge old Friends only as needed. If there are four Friends I want to accept, then I go through and find four random Friends to cut. Thus far, their last names all start with A. I felt bad about that until Georgia pointed out that people whose last names start with A get lots of other advantages in life, so it balances out.

The obvious solution would be for Facebook to cut me some slack and let me add as many Friends as I wanted to. But I’m not in charge of that, and unless Mark Zuckerberg turns out to be a big fan of mine, I don’t think I have any sway over Facebook’s decision-making. Moreover, I sort of appreciate that Facebook has limits. The same way I like that there’s a single template for the Profiles and the Apps – such boundaries are exactly what distinguish Facebook from MySpace, and I’m not qualified to say which of those aesthetic determinations could be deleted without undermining the pleasures of the site.

All of which is to say: if you’re a Friend of mine on Facebook and your last name is somewhere near the beginning of the alphabet, it’s been a really fun ride and I hope we’ll figure out how to connect again soon. Or, as they say on Friendster: Salamat sa pagkakaibigan.