Guest Post: Friend, or Facebook Friend?

How many social media friends do you have? And how many would you also consider “real-life” friends?

I have some who fit both categories. But with hundreds of online connections, it’s literally impossible to keep up, in a meaningful way, with everyone.

Jeff Smith, who wrote Becoming Amish on the conversion journey of Bill and Tricia Moser (see posts on the 6 richest aspects and 5 challenges of becoming Amish), today writes about the life of a different Jeff. I thought this gave a lot of food for thought, and I hope you do too.

My brother-in-law, Jeff, was a plumber. Or at least, that’s what we’d say in America, because we so identify people with careers here. But he was also a husband, a father of three boys. He was a devoted Ski Patroller, he was a cyclist, he helped build trails for mountain bikers, he hunted, he loved working on cars and trucks, loved off-roading.

Jeff lived life up close, tactilely. And nowhere was this more evident than in how he made bonds with people – and in this way, I felt he lived his general society American life sharing some of the most important principles of Amish culture.

He never had a Facebook page. Never posted a single photo to Instagram. Never sent one tweet. Not even sure he did much email. In today’s world, to be so removed from digital interaction like that might suggest he was isolated, detached, a loner. But the opposite was true, as is true with the Amish.

When my brother-in-law passed away recently at the far-too-early age of 53, about 500 people showed up for his Rosary service—this was not his funeral or a memorial service, it was simply a Rosary said in his honor. I stood with our family in a receiving line, in a hallway in the church.

The line ran down the hall, out the church, down the steps and well along the sidewalk. And as the visitors shook my hand and expressed their condolences, there were two sentiments expressed over and over again. One, so many people said these exact words: “He was amazing,” and two, paraphrasing, When Jeff was with you, he was so present, he was so with you.

It was so wonderfully clear that these people were at the service not out of some professional acquaintance obligation. They were there because they felt a true and legitimate connection to him, and in his one-on-one, in person, three-dimensional, so human way, he had built a huge and devoted fan base rich in authentic relationships. Of course, he would never use the phrase “fan base” and would most likely be horrified that I just did, but it’s true.

Not a single person at the service was a Facebook “friend.” But, on Facebook, people did talk about Jeff. One woman wrote about how he helped her become a ski patroller with nonstop encouragement and training, and he even helped a woman from Hawaii who had never skied become a patroller in three months. A man wrote about how Jeff helped carve the single-track mountain bike trails that run through a forest east of town. People said if he suspected, say, a single mom couldn’t afford his plumbing work, he just wouldn’t charge her.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the gap between true human friendship and social media relationships, because I recently wrote a book, Becoming Amish, about two lifelong friends of mine who left a striver life in one of America’s wealthiest communities, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and joined the Old Order Amish.

One of my main takeaways was to be so impressed by how the Amish live life in such a deeply human way, at such a connected level. Bill and Tricia Moser, my friends who became Amish, told me that visiting is what the Amish do for entertainment. They sit with one another, they tell stories, they share meals, they sing songs. When the Amish go on vacation, Bill told me, they don’t even call it vacation, they call it “going visiting,” and they travel the nation stopping in to see friends.

At one point, in talking about this with Bill, as he described a nonstop litany of his family traveling to visit others and others traveling to visit his family, I came to realize Bill and Tricia are, in fact, the most connected people I know, and, like my brother-in-law, they had built a bigger and far richer world of relationships than anybody I knew without ever using digital media.

They achieved this by thinking one relationship at a time, by being present, by serving others in a daily, moment-by-moment way. In essence, by thinking very small and intimate, they achieved something very big and vast, something that Facebook’s army of Ph.D. computer scientists cannot match because their goal is the opposite: big numbers of encounters, but shallow interactions one and all.

I’ve come to believe that social media is not so much an enhancer of friendship as it is a replacement for friendship, a proxy for friendship. Facebook is to friendship what sugar is to food. Yes, sugar is, technically speaking, food, but it does not nourish us, and if you stopped eating real food and ate only sugar, you would die. Likewise, Facebook and other social media relationships are, technically speaking, relationships, but they do not nourish us, and if that’s what we survive on socially, we too become sick and isolated and unhappy.

Public health science is showing this to be true. Back in 1980, 20 percent of people in a survey described themselves as lonely. The survey was recently re-done, and 40 percent of people described themselves as lonely—a doubling of loneliness concurrent with the rise of social media. Obama’s surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, made reducing isolation one of the cornerstones of his term because the health effects of isolation are so great—equal to smoking, worse than obesity. “Live a connected life,” he told graduates at a commencement gathering. But he did not mean connected in the digital sense. He meant connected in the Amish sense, in the three-dimensional, warm touch, look deep in the eyes way. People with strong, honest, legitimate connections live longer and are happier on life’s journey.

At a family gathering after my brother-in-law passed, one of his nieces told a story of a time when she was pregnant, her feet had become painfully swollen on a hot day. Her uncle, my brother-in-law—trained as an EMT—immediately knelt down and began massaging her feet. It felt so good and offered his niece immense relief. She felt that moment was such a clear example of who her uncle was and how he moved through the world.

I enjoyed learning about that moment in my brother-in-law’s life, but I found something richer in it as well. When Bill and Tricia Moser joined the Amish, one of the practices they found so powerful was the Christian foot-washing ceremony that their churches do at communion service twice a year.

The men pair with men and women pair with women, and in pairs, they take turns washing each other’s feet. “This is not a light splashing of water, this is a full-on washing,” Bill told me. The power comes from bending to the feet of a brother or sister and serving them in this most humble way, and feeling the connectedness. For similar reasons, Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to bring foot washing back into their regular practice.

When my brother-in-law knelt to massage his pregnant niece’s feet to give her relief on a hot day, I’m pretty sure that, though he was a Christian, he was not thinking of Jesus’s directive to his disciples after he washed their feet—doing the work of slaves—at the Last Supper, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

But my brother-in-law’s act of serving did show his innate understanding that human relationships are central to our lives, to our spirituality, and that it is important we serve one another, and that we connect in up close, warm, three-dimensional ways. Our world is diminished when we interact only from behind the pale and plastic glow of a computer screen.

Of course, people will continue to use Facebook, and technology will continue to move ahead at an ever-hastening pace. This is undeniable. But I’ve come to believe our only hope in successfully navigating that future is to simultaneously and with equal effort dive ever deeper into our own humanity and to share our humanity with others in person, with a handshake, a hug, a look in the eye, to serve in ways big and small, as my brother-in-law moved naturally through life, as the Amish serve one another.

Photos by Jeff Smith

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    1. Karen

      This is one of the best articles I have read. It expresses my own sentiments. Great thinking.

    2. Debbie H

      Wonderful article. It brought attention to the isolation I have put myself in since the loss of my husband and how AI thought I could exist on Facebook “friends.” Thanks for the nudge.

      1. Glad to hear that Debbie. I think Jeff made some very good points here that I felt like we might know already on some level, but doesn’t hurt to hear again. I hope the nudge helps make good things happen for you.

    3. Kevin lindsey

      This was a good and thoughtful article, one that certainly gives me pause to consider, and will continue to think about. I am sorry for the loss of his brother, but really liked this tribute to him. As a Catholic who admires the Amish I appreciate the parallels he pointed out. Thanks

    4. JM


      Very thoughtful article. I read an article recently about the doubled level of loneliness, and the author made a similar point to what this author has made: loneliness is a byproduct that can only be expected from a society such as ours, where independence is valued above just about anything else. We are expected to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps if we fall on hard times, to be completely self-sufficient islands. If we ever need anything from other people, we’re seen as weak.

      This topic really hits home for me. I’m on disability, unable to work full-time. I can work part-time but the system really doesn’t make it easy and most jobs require more hours than I can do. I finally, just last month, found the right one for me. But a lot of it is from home. So I have to find ways to be around other people. Becuase think about it, where do most people meet friends or future spouses? At work. So if you don’t have that regular interaction, you often end up alone. You have to go very far out of your way to meet people. And you almost always have to have money.

      There’s a site called which allows people with shared interests in a local area to get together, but my area doesn’t have any groups I can be part of (there’s a mom’s group but I’m single, there’s a baby boomer’s group but I’m in my 30s, etc). If I wanted to start my own, I’d have to pay each month for the privilege of hosting the group on that site. There’s a local photography group outside of that website, but each member has to pay $25+ for each outing they do together. Going to theatres or museums costs money; even casual things like bars or coffeeshops costs money — and $20 a month might be nothing to some people, but for someone trying to survive on disability, it can be too much. The local library is free and has lots of events but almost all are for children.

      As a result of all this, I literally have just ONE friend in my state, and she’s not close enough to see more than once every month or two at best. I have one or two friends elsewhere, and I chat with them online. No, it’s not the same as in-person, but I haven’t got much choice. I tried volunteering when I moved here, but I was actually -turned down- by the first five places I tried.

      I felt like I didn’t exist to the world. My mental and physical health suffered greatly, and it didn’t matter a bit. -I- didn’t matter. I even tried going to a church, but being a non-theist humanist, I didn’t fit in (and I don’t think people should have to have a religion shoved down their throats in order to feel like they exist). Secular organisations like the Sunday Assembly are starting to spread, but they’re not in my area yet.

      Our society has a lot of people who get “left behind” like me. But I don’t think the Amish have that so much. They’re aware of the vulnerable members of their community, and they make sure to include them in things. Those people wouldn’t be forgotten or abandoned. This is probably the biggest aspect of Amish culture I think we would benefit from.

      1. JM, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you bring up a good point in that things like Facebook are just tools and can be used for positive purposes as well – and can very well foster or help maintain meaningful connections, especially in situations where in-person meetings are not as easy. There was even an article a few years back on Amish youth on Facebook and how their interactions might actually strengthen or insulate their ties to their Amish (or Amish-raised) peers rather than take them outside their groups. I am aware of meetup though never have attended any events, have wondered how those are. I am also single and find there to be both pluses and minuses of having an empty home to come back to at the end of the day 🙂 It does take some work to maintain social connections when you don’t have a lot of immediate family around you. With more people being single and mobile, this has to be a bigger issue now than in generations past. And social media has filled that gap in some way (or has possibly exacerbated the situation, but I think that’s a question for social scientists…). Thanks much for sharing your perspective and giving this food for thought.

    5. Thankyou

      My parents would be 99 and 110 if alive and I grew up watching my folks care for family and friends. Neighbors neighbored and family took care of, or had family move in with them. It was the way our culture functioned in the olden days. Too bad we’ve gotten away from that today.

      As you know Erik I’ve had Amish friends all my life and have observed the way they live, and it’s like how many of us “used” to live. You don’t have to think about things…you just do it.

      I recently had a conversation with a friend about the multi generation homes that were the norm years ago. She said just about every kid on the block had a gramma or grampa living with them.

      Our pastor had a sermon series on the Ten Commandants and when he got to #5…Honor your father and mother he had some guideline to share with the congregation. Did you grow up watching and helping your folks with your grandparents? They were setting the example for you to follow when your parents were getting older. For the ones that are “sandwiched” in between aging parents and also raising kids…are you setting the example for your kids to use when you’re getting older? That question has been on-going in my head ever since that Sunday. Will our kids do for us what we did for our parents? I struggle with an answer.

      So, when the time comes we better build a daudi house!

      Thank you again for sharing the article it was well written and much food for thought.

      Safe in Christ, Terry

    6. Visiting and the Art of Conversation

      Thanks for this beautiful and moving article. Some of my best memories are of sitting and talking with Amish friends. The ability to sit and converse is, perhaps, diminished as email and abbreviated language and tweets change how we communicate. There is clearly “internet addiction” as people have to check Facebook, Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. multiple times a day.
      When I told a visitor I regularly visit an Amish friend, he asked what we do. I said we sit and talk. “But what do you DO?” We don’t watch a movie, we don’t play cards, etc. I think the thought of just sitting and talking was a little scary.
      Similarly, getting a handwritten note or card means so much to me nowadays, simply because it is so rare. Perhaps in a few generations we will no longer know how to hold a pen.

      1. Great examples Brad. Recently I received several letters from someone. Opening them felt like flashing back to another time. There was something special to it. “Addiction” is more than a metaphorical description in your example as interacting on those technologies gives us shots of dopamine which can be addicting. Thanks for sharing the comment.

      2. OldKat

        Plain talkin'

        Great points, Brad. It is funny, for someone that lives in a state with one tiny Amish settlement (and one that is not particularly close to where I live) I have had quite a few business dealings with Amish people over the years.

        Though until we went to Horse Progress Days in Howe, IN in 2016 and in Leola, PA in 2017 I had never really had the occasion to just socialize with many Amish folks. I’ve always found talking with the Amish to be an easy, pleasant experience, but just didn’t get many opportunities.

        My wife, on the other hand, had never really had any dealings to speak of with any of them. Maybe a “Hello” now and then, but that was about it. By the time HPD 2016 was over she was pretty comfortable visiting with any Amish that she might strike up a conversation with. At HPD 2017 she was not as interested in staying right beside me as she had been the summer before in Indiana.

        At one point I left the event to go see some new (English) acquaintances that happened to share a very uncommon last name with my mother’s family. Donna was sitting in a tent listening to some sort of seminar, completely surrounded by Amish and Mennonite women, when I left. I intended to be gone for about 45 minutes. I was gone 4 times that long and was concerned about how she would take my being away that long.

        Unlike me, she is pretty shy. When I got back, she was sitting in the same tent, just chatting away with some women sitting near her. I was floored, because that is SO UNLIKE HER. The only thing I could think of is that plain women that she was visiting with were such accomplished conversationalists that they made her feel at home. When I apologized for being gone so long she looked kind of surprised. I don’t think she even realized how long I had actually been gone. She was enjoying the experience.

    7. OldKat

      Hi Brad

      Brad, are you by any chance the author of “Amish In Their Own Words”?

    8. I not only travel the world in my career I also study cultural histories and enjoy the worlds differences that ultimately meet as one. 😉 Dank’ & Thankyou friends, Dan Gadd