I’m back on the reader suggestion horse, and what a fun horse it is. The current top voted question from readers is this one, coming in with 32 votes.
What is the nature of friendship in an era of Facebook?
I recently finished reading Writing On The Wall, a book about the 2000 year history of social media, and this excellent book demands several clear questions in response to this one.
- What was the nature of friendship in an era of scrolls?
- What was the nature of friendship in an era of letters?
- What was the nature of friendship in an era of telegraphs?
- What was the nature of friendship in an era of telephones?
The nature of friendship through all of these eras was damn near the same as best I can tell. In any of these eras if we asked people to describe “what is a friend” I believe we’d get very similar answers.
Certainly the ways friendships are started and maintained changed with technology, but the core nature of friendship stays the same. Even as today’s teenagers are already moving past Facebook to the next wave of tools, in any era if we asked someone to define a friend, they’d say a friend is someone you like or trust and share a part of your life with.
Facebook improves friendships by:
- Providing a convenient tool for staying in touch
- Allowing the passive consumption of information about each other
- Introducing people together through common friends
- Facilitating parties and gatherings among friends and acquaintances
Facebook diminishes friendships by:
- Having a major corporation as an intermediary
- Diluting the meaning of the word ‘friend’ (see Dunbar’s number)
- Distracting people away from intimacy and towards superficials (see study)
- Emphasizing indirect rather than direct interaction with friends
- Making real life serendipitous encounters less likely
I recognize all of Facebook’s superficiality and privacy issues. I think they are real. However I recognize the advantages it provides in trade. There are people I consider friends that I would not stay in touch with if not for Facebook and I find that beneficial. I travel often and Facebook keeps me in touch with people I might get to see once a year or two. Without Facebook it’d be more awkward to reach out to them when I’m in town.
The superficial postings, and the reluctance to post about bad news or sad times, may not be Facebook’s fault. We are a superficial species. Few people are comfortable sharing their inner lives and thoughts, even with friends they see every day. I don’t know that I can blame a tool like Facebook for that. Some friends are far more open and honest about their lives on Facebook than others. I point to Facebook’s indirect nature for the endless cliche postings of babies, dogs and beach vacations we see. People share not knowing precisely who, or how many people, will see it.
Sometimes I do think in this age people are less open to meeting strangers at events or public places and starting friendships that way. We have great fear about strangers and situations we can’t control with our phones. But honestly I doubt that was ever an easy way to make new friends. It was for me in college when there was high density of young, single people interested in discovery, but those factors rarely combine again in life. If we want more friends or better friendships we have to actively seek it the older we are.
I also recognize good friends are people I share my life with and I can’t share the most important parts of my life digitally. I want to be with my friends. I try to use Facebook to help involve people in my real life, meeting together, going to movies, meals, drinks, etc. I’m a writer which means ideas are my life, and I can engage in discussions and deep questions online. But I try most of all to use Facebook to help me connect with the people in my city, in person. I can’t say Facebook itself emphasizes this, but that’s the way I try to use it. I use meetup.com in the same way.
The one friendship related technology I miss most is letter writing. I used to write letters to people often and there was something uniquely intimate about spending a half hour writing something directed at just one person. You could think deeply about one person and ask questions that required thought. And they’d reciprocate. Many great friendships in history were maintained primarily through letter writing and arguably those friendships had more depth and meaning than many friendships we have today. But I can’t blame Facebook for the lack of friends interested in connecting this way. We now have dozens of ways to send personal messages to each other and the interest in exchanging letters fell out of fashion long before Facebook was born.
What do you think? How has Facebook changed the nature of friendship for you?