Mikel McLaughlin of Bloomington had nearly 400 Facebook friends a couple of months ago, which got him thinking about the nature of friendship and social media.

So he hit the road to visit them.

“It was a little bit of a test, a social experiment to see how similar is a Facebook friendship with a relationship with actual friends,” he said.

Turned out, the 85 people he met on a trip covering 31 days and 6,000 miles were just what you might expect friends to be. One took him to Yellowstone National Park. Another, a police officer in Idaho who was the spouse of a Facebook friend, took him on a three-hour ride-along where they picked wild asparagus and McLaughlin fired up the siren. Some had him join their families for dinner, and gave him a place to sleep.

Many were people he had known in high school in Washington state — classmates and teachers alike, including a friend whose mom had driven them to school. Some he’d known in the Army, or law school, or were friends of friends, or members of his own family. Some were among the millions of people merely lingering on Facebook — lapsed or indifferent friends. And a few were people he’d never actually met before, which in fact helped to get the conversation rolling.

“How’d we end up Facebook friends? It was a good starting point,” he said.

McLaughlin, 35, graduated from the University of St. Thomas law school last year, had been driving a limo and recently took the bar exam. It seemed like a good time to take a purposeful road trip.

“I wanted to write, and think, and build relationships,” he said. “I like to think. I get a lot of ideas and think, ‘You should do that.’ This time I actually did.”

We’re friends, right?

With the blessing and organizational help of his wife, Sage — whom he truly met on Facebook — McLaughlin headed out of town in a rented VW Beetle April 2. He said he’d originally thought he’d show up unannounced at his Facebook friends’ homes and ask for some favor, to test the notion of friendship. He planned to challenge them, asking, “We’re friends, right?” which became the title of the Facebook page and the blog from his trip (www.facebook.com/werefriendsright, www.werefriendsright.com).

But rather than ambush them, he planned meetings ahead, sometimes crowding six two-hour meetings back-to-back into a day. It was often exhausting, he said, but eye-opening in ways that Facebook doesn’t allow.

“It’s easy to be unkind to people that you only know through Facebook,” he said. “But when you’re meeting with these people and seeing that they’re an actual person, that they’ve got a family, and you have some in-person interaction, it gets more difficult to treat people that way.”

Along those lines, McLaughlin’s blog adds a bit of frankness that might be unusual on Facebook, listing the fact that he dropped out of high school for a while and spent a brief time in jail for being AWOL during a stint in the Army. The idea is to establish a sense of honesty and comfort between Facebook friends.

Friend of a friend

Kimber Tower, of Rigby, Idaho, had been Facebook friends with McLaughlin’s wife for several years before friending Mikel McLaughlin. She’d never spoken to him until he showed up at her and her husband’s home.

“He really listens and asks good questions,” Tower said. “Sometimes what you perceive from the little pieces online is not really accurate. I hope he comes back.”

Thomas Havey met McLaughlin at law school but hadn’t spoken with him in two years until recently, when he was reminded of McLaughlin’s “off kilter sense of humor” and wonder.

“However, I got the sense that behind this endeavor, which may seem silly or trivial, was a truly intellectual person trying to experience the world in a way that may be on the verge of extinction: the face-to-face friendship,” Havey said.

McLaughlin said he hasn’t quite figured out how to make money from his enterprise. His blog has a “Donate” button and indicates his expenses as of Tuesday were $1,925.27. But he said he’s only raised $10. He also indicates he’ll take speaking engagements. “My fee: $0.”

McLaughlin returned from his trip May 2, just in time for a planned date that night with Sage. He said Wednesday would be his last day behind the wheel of the limo. He might take another trip through a different part of the U.S. this summer, but he said for now he’s trying to meet more Minnesota Facebook friends, time permitting.

“I’m going for quality over quantity,” he said.