Some of my most memorable and raucous classroom discussions have occurred while discussing Aristotle’s view of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argues that the best and highest form of friendship requires proximity. Friends must share space and meals. When we get to this point in the text, I lob a question to the class: are on-line friendships possible?
I once had a student tell the class that his best friend was someone he’d never met in person. They were “very close” and chatted all the time, but it was completely on-line. The room fairly erupted. I took it as a positive sign that most of the students agreed with Aristotle and, though electronic communication might help maintain a friendship, the best kind of friendship must be founded on face-to-face interaction.
The latest issue of The New Atlantis has a piece by Roger Scruton on the pseudo-friendships fostered by Facebook and other on-line worlds. Here are a couple of teasers:
When attention is fixed on the other as mediated by the screen, however, there is a marked shift in emphasis. For a start, I have my finger on the button; at any moment I can turn the image off, or click to arrive at some new encounter. The other is free in his own space, but he is not really free in my space, over which I am the ultimate arbiter. I am not risking myself in the friendship to nearly the same extent as I risk myself when I meet the other face to face. Of course, the other may so grip my attention with his messages, images, and requests that I stay glued to the screen. Nevertheless, it is ultimately a screen that I am glued to, and not the face that I see in it. All interaction with the other is at a distance, and whether I am affected by it becomes to some extent a matter of my own choosing.
This freedom from risk is one of the most significant features of Second Life, and it is also present (to an extent) on social networking sites like Facebook. One can enter and leave relationships conducted solely via the screen without any embarrassment, remaining anonymous or operating under a pseudonym, hiding behind an avatar or a false photograph of oneself. A person can decide to “kill” his screen identity at any time, and he will suffer nothing as a consequence. Why, then, trouble to enter the world of real encounters, when this easy substitute is available? And when the substitute becomes a habit, the virtues needed for the real encounter do not develop.
It’s worth pondering the changing nature of friendship in a world insulated from risk by the mediation of a screen.