Guest Blogger Rip Gerber: Good Friends Are Hard to Add

Customer Engagement
Customer Experience
Last fall two of my colleagues who are hip and young started pushing me to consider the power of social media. I resisted. The pressure mounted, and soon convincing stats poured in:

I am not generally a user of social media. I don't Tweet, I don't blog on my own blog. LinkedIn is a bother now that I have a job. When I signed up for Facebook a few years ago, I did so only because my thriller-writer friends insisted. My profile photo was my book cover jacket. Over the course of 3 years I amassed 38 friends on Facebook. I have not seen the movie The Social Network. I am not Web 3.0. I am 48.

But last fall, two of my colleagues who are hip and young started pushing me to consider the power of social media. I resisted. The pressure mounted, and soon convincing stats poured in: Facebook valued at $50B, Twitter catching Google in page views, LinkedIn going public, and so on. I agreed to strap on some SkullCandy headphones, flip open my iPad, and see what all the fuss was about.

I was sorry I did.Being a compulsive student of disruptive technologies, I decided to jump in and prove my younger colleagues wrong. I made a New Year's Resolution: reach 500 friends on Facebook in a month. At the time, a CEO at one of my competitors, whose attempts at being cool in cyberspace were painful to behold, boasted 138 friends. I figured I could at least double that.

What a mistake.

First, Facebook immediately became a late-night obsession. Later than Jimmy Fallon late night. After everyone goes to bed, you snuggle up in a big chair and open your laptop. You find a friend, some long-lost coworker from 10 years ago you have no reason to know now. You send a friend request. Then you look at her friends, sort by Place Worked, and voila, you find four more long-lost coworkers from 10 years ago you have no reason to know now. You send friend requests to all four. This goes on until three in the morning. You morph into a friending gamer: You just want to find one more name that rings of bell from way back then. Just one more. And hit +1 Add As Friend.

Second, finding 500 friends is hard. Slowly, then desperately, your friend threshold drops. A lot. Once you let in James Patterson and your kid's 4th grade math teacher, anyone fits the bill. That front-desk secretary from your accountant's office? Friend. The barista at the Starbucks around the corner? Friend. The old man who dresses up as Santa Claus at Macy's every Christmas? Friend. But still, it's not enough. 500 is a lot, even if you married into a Greek family or sell Mary Kay cosmetics or moonlight as a trombone player with four vanity albums under your belt.

Third, in the race to amass friends, relationship quality suffers. Friending can backfire. Some people don't like to see you have so many friends. They are "the intimates," who want you all to themselves. Yes, the unthinkable happened. One night I was unfriended. I never poked the guy, not once. He just flat out disappeared. I had to friend my company's patent attorney just to keep my numbers up.

Did I achieve my goal? On February 1 I was up until 2:44 in the morning requesting like mad. Right before bed an old friend (actually, our kids were friends in grade school) now living in Africa accepted as I powered down. A sign of hope. But I was still 11 friends from my goal. I missed my target. I couldn't sleep. I had sent out more than enough friend requests. Who declined me? Who said no? I was bitter. Why did all these people reject me? Even at 489 friends, I felt alone.

Then, in the morning, I flipped open my iPad, pulled up my Facebook page, and---to my delight spied a little red box with the number "7" lit up like a Christmas tree. Giggling, tense, I took a shower, made coffee, packed for my morning flight, and lo and behold but what did appear, three more friends. As if the entire Facebook universe was conspiring to help me.

As I dashed off to the airport, the notification I had long been waiting for arrived. Friend #500, in the house. I nearly wept. Dead tired, eyes bloodshot, I sang and thumped the dashboard all the way to SFO, euphoric, as if I had just won Lotto.

Facebook wasn't a mistake at all. It was meant to be. Friend #500 made it all worthwhile.

So as of today, I am a believer in social media. And as of today, I am looking forward to a good night's sleep and to getting back to my life and keeping my day job.

I may be 48, but believe me, social media works. It may not generate sales or ROI, but it makes you feel popular, important and beloved, even if you are, like me, none of those things. Why go to parties and dinners and reunions and meetings when you can stare all day and night into the screen and study profile pics to see if that Matt Smith is the same Matt Smith from Jiffy-Lube who used to change the oil in your first car, the one you sold when you went off to college? (Matt, if you read this, please friend me.)

And who is my very special Friend #500? He is one of my company's most important customers, an executive from Verizon Wireless. Someone who would never answer my emails before is now a friend forever. But he's not the only customer in my FB friends list. Thanks to Facebook, I am so much closer to my customers today than ever before in my entire career.

So what's my next goal? Friend all my customers--at least the top 500 or so. That way I'll be batting 1.000. And I'll never have to fly out to see them, or go into the office, or ever leave the house. Thank you, social media, for making a friend out of me.

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About the Author: Rip Gerber is a biochemical engineer, technologist, and author of science-based thrillers. He's currently CEO of LOC-AID. Gerber now has 718 friends on Facebook.