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Notes on Friendship (and Facebook)

Notes on Friendship (and Facebook)

August 3, 2010 4:52 pmComments are Disabled

I found this article the other day, and it isn’t that recent article by today’s terms (read: 6 months ago) but it is still relevant.

First and foremost, I found it particularly interesting how Deresiewicz tied the history of friendship to our latest foray into “faux” friendship, seeming to trace a line directly from Plato to today in a highly critical view of what we’ve “done” to friendship. But he mischaracterizes the root cause of the problem–it is is not Facebook or MySpace that made us who we are, just like it wasn’t the invention of writing that made people write 10-page long letters. Could not a monk in Ireland lament in 1350 that his ability to write 10-page long missives to his clerical compatriot in Kiev hampered his ability to maintain a close friendship based on conversation and personal intimacy? Certainly Jefferson and Adams did not maintain their letter-writing friendship at the expense of their conversations, but it allowed their friendship to grow and be maintained when distance hampered their communication.

Point being, Facebook may be a technology that enables briefer, less intimate intercourse, but it is not Facebook’s fault that we use it for that. Indeed, Facebook is the latest technology that allows us to do what we seemingly want to do more than anything else–perceive the illusion of friendship without doing the work necessary to create and maintain a Platonic one. But what’s wrong with that? Certainly the telegraph-writers were a proud and noble breed for quite sometime after mobile telephones were commonplace. Certainly there were some horseback riders riding bareback long after the invention of the saddle. But technology clearly enabled some to communicate and ride horses better and more efficiently. We might lament the loss of the agrarian culture, but there’s a reason most of us live in cities. Maybe we are naturally short-focused, uninterested, shallow, petty friend-whore-mongers and Facebook is the first tool that allows us to be what we want to be??

This article to me seems pretty nostalgic, ironically posted on an online forum where comments range from “Good article! XOXO” to “Make me your Facebook friend!” But it does address quite well the changing social relationship of friendship, and it doesn’t lie when it observes that “We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.”

However, like the saddle and the steamboat, maybe that cloud is ultimately an improvement in our lives, not as a social change bound to undo us, but a critical change in the patterns of friendship that stretches, as the author observes, back to Plato. Yes, our world would look much more different today if the typical Tweet was 5,000 words long and every Facebook message ended with “And thus justice is more profitable than injustice,” but it would look different without the millions of improvements to our lives that we don’t even consider. If anything, Facebook has allowed old friends to reconnect in adulthood, new friends to be made around the world, and networks to be created–certainly not close, intimate cliques like one might find in the comraderie of a small town, but diverse networks with people from different backgrounds and experiences, bringing the whole world closer together. These rapid connections have smoothed relations between people and even nations, substituting physical rivalry and enmity for petty online squabbles. Think about being at war today with a country like France, with millions of Facebook users to exchange bickering “fighting words” with. Think about being Facebook friends with an enemy soldier. It sounds absurd. But at the same time, it gives you an idea of the closeness created by an “arbitrary cloud” of “friends.”

I would say in response to this article that Facebook may claim, or want to be, a space for friends, but it is not. I know who my real friends are and who my online relationships pretend to be. I know that the Facebook feed is not a real representation of what my friends are doing–but that’s OK. It’s ok to fantasize and explore new relationships from the safety of the internet. It’s ok to experiment with dialogue in short, opportune bursts instead of long, vulnerable missives. And it’s ok to openly court friends in places one has never been able to do so.

At the same time, when it comes time to find the real world and find real friends, people haven’t had a problem doing that. If anything, technology has given us more leisure time to spend time with friends. Having multiple close friends is not a bad thing, nor is having hundreds of online friends. Just because the word “friend” has been diluted, doesn’t mean the concept of friendship is any less real.

Anyway that’s what I’m thinking. I really enjoyed the article, but as a commentary on today’s friendship the author makes some bold claims that aren’t supported by the way in which we actually use social networking.

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