The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Facebook: The New Type Of Friend

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 6, 2010 @ 14:12

It goes on, and on, and on, and o-oo-on.

This is a follow up to a post I wrote a couple of days ago, in which I wrote about the way in which the Internet has changed and is changing society. In it, I talked about the nature of the Internet as a method of communication and keeping in touch, and how Facebook has become the dominant force in the market.

But there’s something beyond this point that needs closer examination. The issue that intrigues me is whether it is possible to have over 1,000 friends. The answer to it is both yes and no. Yes, because “friend” now means something very different. No, because this new definition of friend is not the same as what we have come to expect.

In the past, I left primary school. I went to a different secondary school to almost all my friends, meaning I left virtually everyone behind. I did exactly the same when I left secondary school, going to a college 15 miles away. Then I left home for university, and at the end of that all of my friends went separate ways.

At each point on that adventure, I met people. Some of them became instant friends. Others took a long time. Some became extremely good friends. Others always were on the periphery. That’s life. That’s normal.

What has changed, however, is that it is now possible to keep in touch with all of those people. And, unfortunately, this includes people who you may not actually want to keep in touch with, but are forced to do so for the sake of politeness.

In years gone by, the only way of communicating with people was by letter – extremely slowly, extremely infrequently – or by phone. Phone is demanding, and active, requiring your attention there and then. But these were the only choices, both of which required quite a lot of effort, a genuine attempt to commit time out of your life to one specific person.

The consequences of that were obvious. It made the concept of friendship naturally self-limiting. There actually was a limit to how many true friends you could have. The rest were all just acquaintances: people you wouldn’t go out of your way of to speak to, but would say hello if you passed them on the street, or in work.

This entire situation is now radically different, and it is entirely down to the concept of a social network. E-mail simply made sending letters easier, but in many respects they still required you to sit down and put effort in. So we’re not talking about the Internet making the difference per se, but a very specific part of it.

The reason why is simple. Facebook is a centralised communication platform. Because it has achieved critical mass, you can almost be sure that the person you want is on there. And, because the site is so effortless, it allows you to make contact with people at great ease, in your own time and at leisure.

On top of all that is the winner: the one-to-many broadcasted status update. Using this, people can see what you’re up to without actually having to talk to you. The same is obviously true in reverse.  In other words, you can keep in touch with people without ever actually asking them.

This has consequences. It makes friendship much more self-centred, because of the increased level of talking about yourself to no one in particular, purely for the sake of showing off about it to a wide audience. It also makes friendship much more trivial. Now it is measured in the amount of neighbours you have on Farmville, or the amount of comments or “like”s you put on someone else’s status.

Because of this, it is indeed possible to have over 1,000 friends. Friends are now people who have, basically, subscribed to the story of your life, and the contents of your head, whether filtered or not, whether funny or not, whether relevant or not.

Of course, this may be reading too much into the concept of “status” on Facebook (and, less so, Twitter). But, let’s face it… to those of us who use it, we all know people who don’t ever update their status. We hate them for it. We want to read about them. After all, they are our friends. It isn’t all about me and my status, though it has grown more in that direction. But by that being the major part of the network, it makes keeping in touch with people easy, free, and done in your own time, when you want it, and when they want it too. It’s convenient for everyone. Win-win.

Sort of. Because it has changed the nature of friendship forever. Words and silly prompts on a screen can never replace the power of speech – the sheer joy of face-to-face interaction. But now, our new idea of friendship both demands less from us, and we probably give even less in return.

In many respects, it’s a reflection of the changing nature of Western, free society. Fragmented. Individualised. Customised. Freeing us to spend more time on ourselves and our busy lives.

And yet, the whole thing has a massive contradiction at its heart. How can we be afraid and even suspicious of our neighbours, reticent and reluctant to engage with them, when many of us are flaunting our personalities daily, even hourly, online?

The answer is perfectly logical. We don’t know them, so we keep ourselves to ourselves. And we don’t know them because we haven’t met them. Yet how do we meet them?

In person. Through either real effort or necessary interaction. The old chestnut of borrowing a cup of sugar may be out of date, but it’s still there. The art of communication lives on.

Good friendships really can never die in the modern age. But alongside that, one can really indulge one’s social side to an extraordinary level that people in the past could only dream of. Hundreds, even thousands, of contacts, for some people right across the planet.

The whole point of the Internet was to make communication easier.

How will we cope though, if it turns into being just a little too easy…

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6 Responses to “Facebook: The New Type Of Friend”

  1. […] The Futility Monster ponders how many friends we can have […]

  2. I have a much more negative view of Facebook. On the issue of Facebook friends it is clear that how many friends you have has become a status issue and for young people in particular that has created an unhealthy race to gather as many as you can. It seems that for anyone in my children’s generation (early twenties) anything less than 1000 friends and you’re a loser. This devalues the whole idea of friendship.

    More importnatly it seems to me that far too much effort is put into posting things onto Facebook knowing or in order that they will be seen by a third party. The word that seems to sum up what Facebook is about and the sort of begaviour it encourages is snide. I know of many instances where rows and disgreements have grown through the use of Facebook. I predict that we will see many more criminal and violent acts that have been encouraged, promoted and facilitated by the use of Facebook. It is, in my view, a nasty, snide way to run your life and one of the worst things to come out of the information revolution.

  3. I don’t disagree with your point, Peter. I am aware that collecting friends on Facebook is indulged in as a rather unhealthy hobby by my generation. It is that that basically got me wondering whether we are re-defining the word “friend” in the digital age.

    The snide aspect of Facebook is interesting, but in some respects it is not new. It is an extension of the fact that the arms-length nature of the Internet makes more people feel like keyboard warriors. In the past it was almost entirely safe to behave like that, through internet forums, newsgroups, mailing lists, etc. because there were no repercussions possible.

    Except with Facebook you really can be held accountable, because it has your name attached!

  4. Eric Brink said

    I like your post. I am unsure of what the full effect of Facebook is on friendship other than to say that it has changed. I am a teacher in Canada and will give my students your post to respond to in their Communication technology class. We’ll see what they think.

  5. […] and Friendships Facebook1 […]

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