What is the nature of friendship in an era of Facebook? An opinion

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?

11 Responses to “What is the nature of friendship in an era of Facebook? An opinion”

  1. christian ward

    I use Facebook to share interesting posts, essays (including yours), and news articles and the like with people in my Facebook friends community. I also use it to promote my essays on my own site. Sometimes I am lucky to start and have conversations with Facebook friends about something they have or I have posted, perhaps something I’ve written and they have contacted me in response.
    I do not use Facebook to stay in touch with friends in other cities. I see friendships as being in a series of concentric circles. Those in the closest circles I connect directly with through a phone call, email, text or I bump into them. Facebook is somewhere out in some farther orbit.
    I desire only a few really good, intimate friends and I spend most of my time fertilizing and caring for those friendships. The rest, well, to sound a little cynical, are nice, but not essential to how I feel about my life.
    I appreciate and agree wholeheartedly as a writer ideas are your cash for your writing. Me too. I guess I have enough “friends” that I don’t see value in Facebook in that particular way. I’m certain I benefit from having a Facebook to connect with people but I wouldn’t necessarily say my Facebook “friends” are also my friends.
    As usual, you bring thoughtfulness to the greater conversation. I have enjoyed all three books I’ve read of yours. Next up: TYWP. Be well.

    1. Scott

      Christian: Thanks for sharing your view on this.

      I don’t think it’s cynical at all not to care much about distant friends you only connect with on Facebook. It makes natural sense. You can’t be intimate with everyone and if you tried you fail at being intimate with anyone.

      My story is unusual since some of my closest friends don’t live where I do. They’re friends from childhood and college. Other than moving to a different city I have no choice but to use technology of some kind to stay connected with them (or to abandon them as friends and move on! :)

      1. christian ward

        Absolutely agreed Scott. Maybe you are a better friend than I to those who live far away. I have occasional conversations with people I had once been close to. But it seems life and time have led me to move on. This conversation has caused me to examine again what I want from my friendships. Maybe that means getting in touch with some I haven’t for a while. Thank you for that.

  2. Phil Simon

    The superficial postings, and the reluctance to post about bad news or sad times, may not be Facebook’s fault.

    Oh, completely. No one forces us to share anything. We are not conscripted to join any social network or accept a request to connect.

    I laugh when I see people with 5,000 Facebook friends who also “follow” 80,000 people on Twitter. Nonsense. See Dunbar’s Number.

    1. Scott

      I suppose it depends what someone with 5000 Facebook friends thinks tha kind of friend means. Maybe they’re just using it as a contacts manager. I use LinkedIn in that way as for professional things that an easy way to manage people I’ve met at a conference once or did business with years ago.

      But generally I agree with you – having that many ‘connections’ dilutes the meaning of any of those connections, on average.

  3. Antoinette

    When I joined FB in 2008, I thought of it as a networking tool. And then got caught in a landslide of high school and college friends connecting, which was fun, too. But I never thought FB would change how I define a friend. I could easily substitute “contact” for “FB friend” and all would be well. There was a great article I’d read (thought it was the WSJ but I can’t find it now) about social media being super for creating weak ties, but doing nothing to strengthen strong ties — and my experience has absolutely echoed this.

    I don’t post “bad” stuff on social media because there is so much bad stuff out there already. No one needs more. And really, what is so bad about my first-world life? Not much.

    I’m more interested these days in social media as a narrative tool. A once-close friend posted frequently on FB about super-romantic date nights and all manner of lovey-dovey-ness, and in a year this couple headed to Divorce-ville. I wonder about using social media to author the life you want to have, rather than telling people about the life you actually have.

    1. Scott

      Interesting. That raises another thing I wonder about which is the collision of information people used to simply keep in their own private journal with what the share on Facebook.

      Private journals have a purpose. The process of writing things down and sharing them with yourself (in the future) is valuable in part because you can be completely honest and no one else will see it.

      But when you document your life on Facebook you write everything knowing others will read it. You’re never honest in the same way.

      I wonder if the rise of Facebook has led to a decrease in the % of people who keep a diary or how often they use it.

      Also: on weak times this is a good summary to a few different related articles (weak times about weak times :):


      1. Antoinette

        That is a content-rich article! Thanks for suggesting it. It will take me some time to catch up on it all, but, sadly, none of the links are to the article I’ve been searching for. I hope no one has foregone their private journal entries in favor of FB posts documenting their lives — how awful to shape our conversations with ourselves based on how we frame our images via social media. Internal monologue is good!

  4. Sean Crawford

    You mention scrolls.
    From the days of scrolls and sandals comes Aesop’s fable of The Hare With Many Friends, one who thought she was the most popular member of the animal kingdom. One day, hearing the hounds approaching, she asks the horse for a ride. No, but “a popular creature like you should have no difficulty in getting someone to help you.” After a series of animals with excuses, the hare runs off on her own.

    My 1947 book ends the tale: He who has many friends has no friends.



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