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.

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Mark T. Mitchell is the co-founder of Front Porch Republic. He is the Dean of Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry College and the author of several books including Power and Purity, The Limits of Liberalism, The Politics of Gratitude, and Localism in Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (co-editor).


  1. There is something to say for the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon aka the bystander effect aka what happened with Kitty Genovese taking place at a massive scale on social media platforms. Like, if something really terrible is going on politically or socially and we all think someone else is taking care of it. Here is a blog post I wrote on the subject if you’re interested in reading it! Thanks!

  2. Entering any virtual world brings the risk of no risk, or not choosing choice. This may not be the flaw with the virtual world, but with our actual world. What would press people into those worlds with virtual freedoms but an actual world with suppressed freedoms?

    Scruton is wrong about the lack of risk in Second Life. Suffering “nothing” as a consequence of one’s action in a virtual world whose economic is real is simply wrong. Scruton seems ignorant of how games operate — no fault on his part! — and how social networking sites work.

    To buy anything in Second Life, you have to pay real money and there are numerous people who make (real) 6-figure incomes by selling virtual products. At any point, you can cash-out your investment.

    Also, Facebook is no more “free from risk” than writing a letter or an open forum. In fact, it’s often more embarrassing when one changes his or her relationship “status” because suddenly Facebook alters all your friends that you are in (or out of) a relationship. Businesses are denying jobs, the Library of Congress is saving all twitter feeds… There are real-world risks, just rearranged risks. Leaving relationships “without any embarrassment” is patently false. Gossip erupts as soon as people publicly announce entering (or leaving) a relationship.

    “Killing” one’s facebook account for a long time was impossible. And now, Google CEO says that if you want privacy, change your name. We are entering an era where everything is recorded and nothing is forgotten.

    Mostly, Facebook is a waste of time. But as a hub for sharing knowledge it is a good way of disseminating information. Twitter, too, if used for sharing articles, important events, and deep 140-character thoughts, has its appropriate uses. Technophobia is as foolish as technophilia.

    Malcolm Gladwell seems to think Facebook and Twitter have no effect, which seems to be a significantly premature judgement.

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