Facebook and Friendship

by Susan McWilliams on February 18, 2010 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

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Claremont, CA. In an early episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” the characters agree that if your friend is in a play, you have to go see that play. You have to go see that play even if you know the play is going to be bad, even if you know that going to see your friend’s play means spending three hours of your life cramped up on a metal folding chair in a rank and overheated room, watching a turtleneck-clad performer say the word “moist” five thousand times in a row. You have to go see that play even if your friend only has a bit part. Friendship, the characters agree, requires that kind of generosity.

In their own interactions, the characters on “How I Met Your Mother” tend to meet that standard of friendship, and then some. Friendship drives the show’s humor and plotlines, and friendship makes the show appealing as a whole. None of the individual characters are entirely likeable, but their love for each other is. They all try, very hard, to be very good friends.

Maybe that’s why no one on “How I Met Your Mother,” although they are young people living in New York City who in real life would certainly spend a lot of time on the Internet, has ever talked about Facebook.

According to official data, the average Facebook user has 130 friends on the site. And lots of us – as of this morning, I have 716 Facebook friends – have many more than that. Some of my students are well above the 1,000-friend mark.

That’s a lot of mediocre plays to attend. Hell, that’s a lot of birthdays to remember, a lot of holiday cards to send, a lot of drunken phone calls to take late at night.

Of course, we all know that Facebook “friendship” does not connote real friendship. It does not confer any of the obligations we might associate with friendship, certainly not obligations of the play-attending type, and not even obligations of a fundamental sort. If you and I are Facebook friends, we do not need to know anything about each other, much less care for each other.

By the same token, Facebook friendship does not confer any of the real joys of friendship, like sharing a really deep secret, or sitting in a room together in silence, or having a rip-roarin’ good time together. (Two years ago, Hal Niedzviecki wrote a memorable piece in the New York Times Magazine describing how he invited his 700-or-so Facebook friends to a party. One person showed up.)

On Facebook, the concept of “friendship” is promiscuous, attaching itself to just about any human interaction.

Lots of people have written about this, and speculated about what it all means, in pieces ranging from the very thoughtful, like this one in The Chronicle of Higher Education, to the less thoughtful, like this one in Newsweek. (Although it’s slightly off-topic, I particularly enjoy Elizabeth Bernstein’s article in The Wall Street Journal about how online “friendships” can ruin real friendships.)

What I’d like to stress is that, whatever else you make of Facebook friendship, it underscores the great and significant discrepancy between: 1) the scale of contemporary life, and 2) the scale of friendship.

The scale of contemporary life is so vast that it is hard to fathom. For most of us, completing even the most homebound tasks – using the bathroom, eating a meal – involves us massive networks of pipe and road, transportation and production, people and powers. For most of us, going to work means traveling a fair amount of horizontal distance – and then logging on to connect ourselves to even more far-flung places, to cover an even greater span of space. Ours is an era in which the grand forces are all centrifugal, as William Leach has written, and in which the injunction is to “extend your reach.” We are told to minimize the time we spend doing things – to seek efficiency – in order to extend ourselves further. Services like Facebook are inevitable in this context, since they both allow and encourage the extension of our reach across great, seemingly limitless distances.

By contrast, the scale of friendship is necessarily limited. Friendship is a bounded relationship, one that thrives on intimacy and depth rather than extension and breadth. Friendship thrives, as C.S. Lewis wrote, by withdrawing people from networks of collective “togetherness” into smaller and more partial spheres. Even if, as Lewis says, friendship is the least jealous of loves, it is always to some degree exclusive. Friendship flourishes when given lots of time and little distraction: conditions which you cannot extend to more than a very few people. In the end, the scale of friendship is limited because each of our lives is limited. Our time is limited, and friendship requires time. (It is telling how silly the dominant values expressed in our language sound when they are applied to friendship; no one has ever complemented someone else by calling her an “efficient” friend.)

Put in starker terms, we might say that Facebook friendship is part and parcel of a culture that values a way of living that – while on certain terms quite interesting and rewarding – is inhospitable to the cultivation of real friendship.

A great person once told me that the great tragedy of the modern world is that it allows us to meet and connect with so many interesting people, but that by the same token we are forced to say goodbye to so many interesting people.

We live in a world where we encounter so many people who could be our friends – and perhaps Facebook friends should be regarded in those terms, as people who might be our friends if certain contingencies were different – but where, for that same reason, it becomes harder and harder to be friends with any of them.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar DeeAnn February 18, 2010 at 5:53 am

I view facebook not as a replacement for direction interaction, but as a supplement to it. I still have my close friends and family members that I call and do things with regularly. But as you mentioned in the article, there are lots of interesting people out there and being on facebook with them increases the opportunities for interaction. Plus I often find out that a friend is struggling from their facebook posts and this prompts me to call or visit to see what’s up.

avatar Jared February 18, 2010 at 11:57 am

Well put. I liked the references to How I Met Your Mother too. I think you really touched on a big problem with Facebook, namely that Facebook friendships are not always “real”.

As I was thinking about this topic, I thought of high school reunions as an analogy. Most people who go to high school reunions go there for the same kinds of reasons that people grab up lots of Facebook friends. They don’t intend to rekindle relationships, but may have a nostalgic itch they need to scratch and it is a convenient method of doing so.

I enjoyed this post.

avatar Heylucas February 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm

I would propose a counterpoint. Facebook, among other networking sites, takes us back to the village of the past. We know much more about each other than we did before and we are in each other’s business more than ever. Instead of contributing to isolation, it builds community. Instead of fragmentation and isolation, new connections are made. This too has its downside. But if you choose to participate, whatever the medium, the risk may pale compared to the reward. Facebook may in fact be re-building social capital, rather than weakening it, as often suggested.

avatar pb February 18, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Social capital cannot be employed if there is too much of a distance between people — we are not disembodied spirits.

avatar James Kabala February 18, 2010 at 9:48 pm

PB: I don’t know about that; haven’t there been great epistolary friendships between people who rarely or never met? (Does anyone have pen pals anymore? There were already obsolete by my youth, but weren’t they common in the 1950s?)

I’m surprised, considering all the things that fall under suspicion around here, to see an endorsement of the loathsome How I Met Your Mother.

avatar dave February 18, 2010 at 10:49 pm

In the 80′s – or 90′s, not really certain – there was a fad of naming ‘cocooning’, the trend at that time of people to go home after work and stay at home. This touches not upon a vein, but a major artery.

I use faceboook, and have been reunited with some old lost friends, but it is hard to escape the sense that facebook is just a large data mining / advertising engine.

I agree with the post – friendship is a thing hard won.

I’d just say that what the new media offers is something else – the first essay done, the second essay waits – it’s not quite friendship traditionally defined, but it’s something. From the response social media gets, it meets some need.
And so, what?

avatar AprilConstance February 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

I agree with HEYLUCAS, Facebook does serve the purpose of connecting or reconnecting people. It serves as a tool for the users to take a glimpse of their “friend’s” life without really having to invest time with them like how the article mentions, going to a play for your friend. In a society that is ever changing, where individuals leave their hometown for education or career, or have lived in several states or countries for whatever reason, Facebook serves as a connection between people. Admittedly, it is not as personal or as intimate. The word “friend” in Facebook has been tossed so lightly that it almost lost its meaning. For the most part all that Facebook does is that it allows us to meet people, its up to the individual if they want to take their face book friends and invest time and effort into transforming it to a real friendship. After all, I agree with the article and with DAVE -friendship is a hard thing won.

avatar pb February 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Mr. Kabala — there are rare exceptions for those with great virtue, but I think that is the general case.

avatar Luke February 19, 2010 at 6:25 pm

My generation eats and breathes Facebook, and it frightens me.

I’m only 20, but I’m convinced that social networking has a detrimental net effect on society, although I concede it clashes far more acutely with certain personality types- mine included. Admittedly, I have non-conformist and quasi-Luddite tendencies to begin with, and I generally dislike gossip and things which I perceive to be “corporate.”

I used to have a Facebook with a lot of so-called “friends,” and then I didn’t. Then a year later I gave it another shot, then quit again.

I feel significantly happier without it, and don’t miss the actual website at all; it’s ugly, cumbersome, time consuming, and mostly without much substance. (you have 10 vampire vs. zombie requests!)

The only reason I find it seductive at all is that I love meeting people. It’s easy for a non-user to imagine all the hip, swingin’ people he or she could be meeting via Facebook. In my experience, however, I mostly used it to communicate and spy on the small pool of friends I would be hanging out with anyway (or should be hanging out with if we weren’t all at home on our Facebooks.) Studies have shown the majority of people text message the same few people most of the time, and I wonder if the same is true with Facebook chat and messaging. Studies also show that a large portion of Facebook use is made up of men (usually with girlfriends or wives) looking at pictures of (other) women.

Isn’t all of this a recipe for unhappiness? In my experience, happiness comes from the satisfaction of having appropriate standards and having them met or satisfied. Won’t I be less satisfied with my girlfriend if I can spend my time chatting with/ looking at pics of hundreds of other women and their daily activities? Won’t I feel less satisfied having a few beers with my friends if I am being bombarded with updates and reminders about my high school classmate’s trip to Africa and pictures of all the parties I didn’t choose go to? Barry Shwartz talks about the topic of satisfaction and limits in his book, “The Paradox of Choice.”

Most people protest this point with examples of how Facebook allows them to chat with their grandma in Timbuktu, or their long lost best friend from kindergarten. This is nice, but at what cost? I don’t even know the names of the people who live in my own cul de sac.

avatar Luke February 19, 2010 at 6:41 pm

[i]Heylucas said:

I would propose a counterpoint. Facebook, among other networking sites, takes us back to the village of the past[/i]

In the village of old, one doesn’t often doesn’t have a choice about tolerating annoying, irritating, and inconvenient people. You live in a town or village or farm or whatever, and people are just there.

In Facebook land, the individual selects the “friends” they desire from anywhere in the planet based on whatever criteria they happen to choose. Like, say, music taste or something.

In the village, it’s important to learn coping skills to deal with people that are totally different from oneself because sometimes they can’t be avoided.

On Facebook, you simply de-friend someone.

I know it’s more complex than that, and Facebook doesn’t exist in a social vacuum, but the main problem is that our bodies are wired to operate the first way. And if people (especially kids) either forget or never quite learn the skill of tolerating their neighbors regardless of what popular music they like, it’s gonna that much more tough to figure it out later when a smelly, annoying jerk is right in their face.

avatar Daniel McCarthy February 21, 2010 at 8:37 pm

This seems like an existential overreaction to Facebook on the part of the last wave of the television generation. Of course Facebook is no substitute for personal friendship, but who ever said it was? Facebook “friendship” is more like the relationship between “pen pals,” and the same poor arguments that are deployed against Facebook could be made against relationships with pen pals in other countries or other states or in prison. Just because these interactions are not personal friendship does not make them worthless or inhuman interactions.

The generation gap is at the center of this, but which generation has really been raised in the more inhuman condition, the present generation which has long-distance relationships with actual human beings on Facebook, or the mass-media generation whose picture of reality is mediated by sitcoms and the New York Times? Maybe you can more from Facebook “friends,” who are not and never have been substitutes for actual friends but are at least live minds, than you can learn from the homogenized and mass-marketed content of the CBS/NYT stereopticon.

avatar Michael February 22, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Link to an interesting blog post about Facebook I read a few months ago:

http://cunningrealist.blogspot.com/2009/12/face-time.html

avatar MJK February 22, 2010 at 4:24 pm

I guess if you find facebook a compelling tool than so be it. I’m not sure it’s a proper equivalent to the pen pal — elements of immediacy and longing make the two generational mediums quite different.

What I find most unappealing about facebook is its truculent faddishness and tendency towards intrusion. Sure, one can choose to opt out of this milieu, but one cannot really opt out of what these tools do to those who choose to use them and the social manners sprung from their use. Tools are fine; facebook is a tool, but the users need to become not so reliant as to loose sight of its proper limitations. Whether virtual or concrete, sometimes we can become too connected. Being too connected causes knuckleheads to text when driving…honestly, the overt narcissism cultivated by these web 2.0 and social networking tools takes its toll…

avatar Albert March 5, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Mr. McCarthy, I get your point regarding the superiority of Facebook interactions to entertainment in isolation, but most of the generation on Facebook also watch sitcoms and read the NYTimes. In other words, there is a cumulative dimension to our technological engagement.

avatar Wessexman March 15, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Heylucas, sorry but that is nonsense. You simply cannot compare electronic interactions with all the multiple stimuli of real human interactions, particularly those of a close-knit community. Sure there is some place for electronic community but it is nothing like a replacement for real, small-scale community.

avatar patrick March 21, 2011 at 7:25 am

friendship is better than brotherhood. Keep it up face book

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