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The Quality of Offline and Online Friendships

Aristotle once wrote, "Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit." The familiar, if subtle, endorphin buzz that comes when X has "requested to add you as a friend" on Facebook is a well-known feature of online networking. It only takes a quick click to connect, and a few more down the line to interact in order to maintain a steady, low-level online 'friendship'. But there is more and more comment in the press about how these virtual link-ups devalue the analogue meaning of friendship as we supposedly understood it, Aristotelian wisdom or not.

Take this article, which was published on the Guardian's Comment is Free page today. The author, Aditya Chakrabortty quotes Jaron Lanier in registering the problem that "tick-box definitions" of oneself and one's friends online is a reductive platform through which to socialise. Chakrabortty begins by referring to the Christmas Day suicide of one Facebook user, whose online friends failed to take seriously her status updates about killing herself. "What's an online friendship worth?" the author asks, "Or, put another way, how is it possible to rack up more than 1,000 friends on a website, and for none of them to step in when you try to kill yourself?"

"it's wrong to simply charge social networking with the crime of categorically reducing people's concept of friendship across the board"

The case is obviously an unusual one, though there's no doubt that it's shocking. But while online friendships can seem hopelessly insubstantial and transient, it's wrong to simply charge social networking with the crime of categorically reducing people's concept of friendship across the board. In fact, it's done the opposite and in this post I want to point to some evidence of that.

Let's take the prevalence of online-only friendships as a starting point, since that is a totally new phenomenon which the internet has given us. A friend of mine recently told me about her cousin, a teenager, who confidently affirms that the best friendships she has are not with anyone she knows from school or in person, but with individuals she has met online and fostered digital friendships with. Interestingly however, for naturally shy people who compensate for low levels of face-to-face interaction with others by turning to online friendships, the outcome is generally regarded as a short-term quick-fix. Many such users report that they are, overall, not much happier because of the new social opportunities the internet has afforded them. Have a look at this research paper. It states that "social similarity mattered, even for friends who were met online. The more similar an online friend was in residence and gender, the stronger was the social tie."

This suggests that the quality of friendships online remains closely linked to traditional signifiers of social compatibility - that there is only so much bridging the internet can do between people before they fall back towards seeking empathetic commonality. (Here is another piece of research which looks at the role of perceived similarity in online relationships.) The significance of this is not small, it is one way of showing that people may not be so easily satisfied by superficiality after all. Let's go a little deeper.

One of the most frequent complaints people make about Facebook and other social networking services is they feel that it detracts from or displaces more traditional and more meaningful engagement with their friends in face-to-face scenarios, which remain the most important situations for developing trust and familiarity between individuals. But what if that semantic problem with the word 'friendship' I hinted at earlier is the root of this perceived dissatisfaction? 'Friends' on Facebook are all sorts of things. They are acquaintances, they are best friends, they are old and new friends, they are even people we don't really like, they are people we do and do not want to talk to, they are people we work with and they are people we socialise with, they are people we tell secrets to and they are people whose opinions disgust us.

In a word, the meaning of the word 'friend' has been fundamentally blurred by Facebook's architecture. People, no wonder, are left confused. We get an ever-updated News Feed which mixes up information from all these different sources as though they were all of equal value. We see images of everyone as much as we want, not just our closest companions. And we are obsessed with compulsively tagging, connecting, poking, liking, commenting and 'friending'. It's telling that the original be- prefix has been removed from the verb befriend in the online age. That be- prefix, linguistically speaking, is an intensifier and one which emphasises, in this case, the sense of concatenation, of two friends being joined together in active and passive ways. That deeper sense of the word is forgotten in cyberspace.

But that's because we don't always want to be so closely joined to the friends we have online. Social networking, by definition, prioritises a rational and quite utilitarian idea of connections between people - a network whose strength is found in numbers. The bigger it is, the more powerful it is. Much like a hacker's botnet or a group of political activists. Now we encounter the concept of social capital. That is, what is your perceived 'worth' to those around you? The definitions of value here - and this is where the problem lies - can vary wildly. Are you useful as a professional, emotional or casually social contact?

This blog post scoffs at the idea that one would organise one's online social connections based on the quality of those connections. More is quite simply better, the author claims. But that is only true when speaking from a utilitarian, information-sifting perspective. For this author, online relationships are about information exchange and professional interaction, not emotional trust and sharing: "I have reached out to multiple nationally known speakers, authors, and leaders. I have established relationships with industry leaders that I wouldn't have gotten to know otherwise."

Furthermore, there is a massive and often overlooked difference between using the internet to fill otherwise idle gaps of time and using it to waste hours in meaningless chatter. A fantastic investigation into the activity of social capital on the internet, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, makes this point:

It is not the technology per se that can affect individuals' social capital but the specific ways in which individuals use the technology. This explains why online activities have been found to both reduce and increase social capital. As Resnick (2002) noted, when we spend time on the Internet that we would otherwise use to engage in face-to-face contact, social capital will diminish. But if going online displaces activities like commuting or watching crime dramas, the net effect could be positive."

So one main worry which does remain is the power of services such as Facebook to engross us in truly meaningless pursuits and online activities, as if time were made to be frittered away as trivially as possible. The internet's power for distraction is certainly frustrating for those who feel compelled to improve their closest friendships with others in the 'real world' but find online potholes every inch of the way back to analogue experiences:

"Posting links to jokes in YouTube on the FunWall or spending time creating Facebook Groups such as "If 1,000,000 People Join I'll Legally Change My Name To McLovin" can foster a sense of customization and enjoyment but drive attention away from the real world. As Shah and colleagues (2001) have argued, "in such cases, recreation and socializing may become privatized while the illusion of social interaction is maintained" (p. 154)."

But the greater problem, as usual, lies in perception. Technology can be bad for us, but it can also be very good for specific things. We create frustration for ourselves when we are tricked by technology into thinking it can solve all of our problems in the same way. It can't. But it can likely help us solve problems and foster friendships in different ways, though even then it is only one aspect of the three-dimensional, physical and virtual space we inhabit and should be used proportionately.

We seem to always make the mistake of condemning the internet for not allowing us to achieve the same satisfaction that we get from face-to-face relationships in half the time. How churlish. The internet is once again our digital scapegoat. Friendships, like Aristotle's "slow-ripening fruit" remain valuable because of the time and presence we invest in them. Their real, if esoteric, value has nothing to do with how often we 'poke' one another on Facebook. Who likes being poked in real-life anyway?


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Oh! There are archived comments for this article...

I should have added \"if something is in print REGARDLESS of where it has been printed\" etc, etc, etc...

For many folks, a high number of FB friends is a badge of honour, proof that they are indeed popular and I am not just talking about teenagers. Where I live - a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic - FB routinely pervades conversation. In this tiny goldfish bowl of a society, it has turned virtually everyone into a stalker because the low level of education means that if something is in print then it must be true. The end result is people who gobble up - and buy into - all kinds of scams and are growing increasingly unable to distinguish between fact and fiction...

The biggest complaint I hear is, \"How many of those people are actually your friend?\" It always makes me wonder if people would have this consistent objection to high friend count lists if it were simply called \"links\" instead of \"friends.\" People see the word \"friend\" and automatically want to apply it in the same sense they would to a real life friend, and it prevents them from looking at the list for what it really is.





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