This Man Traveled 5,000 Miles for Facebook

What do you typically do when Facebook’s “People You May Know” tool suggests you friend someone you don’t know at all? Most of us probably just ignore it — but some people apparently go ahead and click “friend.” And after that? Some people even go so far as to travel 5,000 miles to meet the person.

That’s what university student Victor Van Rossem from Ghent, Belgium did when “People You May Know” suggested he friend one Neal D. Retke, who lives in Austin, Texas. Van Rossem and Retke’s story was recent chronicled by the Daily Mail, and believe you me, it’s quite a read. “I became fascinated by him,” Van Rossem told the Daily Mail about how he reacted when Facebook suggested he friend a complete stranger living an ocean away from him. “He had a long beard and looked a little unusual. He did art performances and paintings of mythical creatures and strange beasts, which only made me more interested in him. He looked like someone I wanted to meet — a very eccentric person.” Accordingly, Van Rossem sent Retke a friend request; alas, though, Retke didn’t respond.

And here’s where the story takes a turn for the stranger: When he didn’t get a response back from Retke, Van Rossem decided to seek him out in real life. With a camera and a friend, Bran Van Bree, in tow, he traveled from Belgium to Austin in order to hunt down the mysterious Retke and ask him if they could be friends in person.

Van Rossem and Van Bree posted signs all over Austin emblazoned with a picture of Retke and asking, “ARE YOU, DO YOU KNOW, OR HAVE YOU SEE THIS MAN? FACEBOOK SAID WE COULD BE FRIENDS. PLEASE HELP!”; they decked themselves out in t-shirts with the phrase “Neal D. Retke for President!” written on them, hoping that someone would spot them and be able to point them in the right direction; and they filmed the whole thing as they went. Eventually they found someone who knew Retke; this person suggested they look for their mysterious quarry at a book signing. And lo and behold, who should appear but Retke himself! “We were nervous when we first saw him,” Van Rossem said to the Daily Mail. “We didn’t know how he would react — but after we explained the whole thing he just laughed and said, ‘Well, you found me,’ as if he was expecting us.” They hung out in Austin together for three weeks, filming their adventures all the while; they then edited all their footage down into a half-hour documentary-style video titled “Neal D. Retke for President!” Retke might visit the duo in Belgium next summer.

Here’s the thing, though: Yes, the story is cute, and kooky, and it all worked out well enough in the end; it’s the kind of thing you think could only happen in the movies. But I actually find it more than a little creepy. Here's why.

What I'm about to say might seem like a stretch, but stick with me. Let’s consider for a moment the primary point about why street harassment isn’t OK: Namely, one person’s desire to flirt with a stranger doesn’t trump the stranger’s personal desire to be left alone and/or personal level of comfort and safety. If someone doesn’t respond to your advances, you need to back the hell off, not get all up in the other person’s face. He or she doesn’t owe you anything — not sex, not a conversation, not even a smile.

Now let’s take a look at the initial set-up of the “People You May Know” situation: To me, it’s not so dissimilar from what we’re looking at with street harassment. I would argue that Retke’s lack of response to Van Rossem’s friend request is analogous to someone not responding to a catcall; as such, the same rule applies: One person’s desire to “friend” a stranger doesn’t trump that stranger’s desire to be left alone and/or personal level of comfort and safety. If I had been in Retke’s proverbial shoes, I would have been profoundly disturbed, no matter how nice the person who located me turned out to be.

To be clear, I don’t think Van Rossem himself is creepy; part of me really enjoys the fact that one simple suggestion from one wacky social media algorithm resulted in the beginning of what could be a beautiful friendship. Mostly it’s the fact that it’s even possible for one person to be able to locate another person based on that simple suggestion from that wacky social media algorithm that wigs me out. I know there’s only so much “what if”-ing we can do before we start venturing into the realm of unfounded paranoia, but what if the situation hadn’t been nearly as benign as it turned out to be? Not everyone uses their Internet powers for the forces of good; in fact, as we’ve seen time and time again, a huge number use them for the forces of evil.

I hate the fact that we’re still at a point where we need to consider these concerns, but the bottom line is that they’re very, very real. In an ideal world, we would be able to “friend” random people and go visit them unbidden in real life without having to worry about all the possible worst case scenario — but we’re not there yet, and until we are, I think we need to be careful about how we deal with stories like this one. Just because it worked for Van Rossem and Retke doesn’t give everyone in the world carte blanche to do the same thing; not everyone wants to be hunted down and “friended in real life” by people they don’t know.

What I think Van Rossem did right, though, is that he went into the whole search seemingly without any agenda other than meeting Retke: He doesn’t appear to have expected Retke to automatically declare them lifelong friends or what have you, and I get the feeling that if Retke had responded negatively, Van Rossem would have simply gone on his way and returned home. Maybe that’s the other lesson we can take away from this story: Sure, we can reach out, but what we can’t do is expect anything in return. No matter what the other person’s response is, we’ve got to respect it. We’re only as good as how we treat everyone around us.

Images: Giphy (3)