Ask someone how many friends they have. They might answer, “One thousand and ninety-three” or just “One.” More likely, they'll ask you back: Real friends or virtual friends?
What we know is this: 1. Unless you're a band, MySpace friends are irrelevant. 2. There is a lack of consensus on the difference between a Facebook friend and a friend friend.
But what we don't know yet is the ultimate extent of the damage to the meaning of friendship the former category poses to the latter.
Does having a person on your friends list mean that you're actual, real-life friends? Of course not: I am Facebook friends with The Casbah, Lagavulin and Daffy Duck, but everyone knows the limitations of friendship between a person and a beloved nightclub, single-malt scotch or a cartoon character. On second thought, those three have been more reliable than some of my human friends, but you catch my drift. Let me put it to you in the form of another question: Is there a minimum level of actual friendness required for someone to be a Facebook friend?
Some Facebookers will add anyone as a friend just to pad their total—in some cases, this is based on radical flexibility regarding online friendship, and, in other cases, it's about self-promotion or a potentially unhealthy obsession with being perceived as a valuable Internet entity. My colleague Aaryn Belfer reported in her column defending Facebookery back in January of last year how researchers at the University of Georgia discovered a correlation between number of friends and narcissism.
Even if you're not a Facebook-friend-collecting glutton, the pressure to add friends is always there: What's wrong, one may wonder, with the person who has only 26 Facebook friends? Newbie? Hermit? Poison? Of course, in real life, having to manage the needs and expectations of a mere 26 real-life friends would stress even Lil' Wayne.
Others are more circumspect about who gets to be a friend. They may establish Friending principles, such as “I will never add someone as a friend who is not my friend in real life.” Usually, what those abiding by this principle really mean by “friend” is “acquaintance”: If I have met you, I can add you. Those who establish principles like this are not going to see their friends total rise into the thousands, but on the other hand, they will likely have a high level of Facebook Friend Overlap™—that is, the percentage of “friends” on their list who are also their friends in real life.
One pressure to friend (verb) comes in the form of a little cajoling: Facebook offers you potential friends based on how many friends you have in common. Right now, for example, I have a recommendation to add someone with whom I have more than 100 friends in common. But he can't get past the idiosyncratic gatekeeper in me who polices the virtual portal to my friendosphere.
At the same time, I know he's receiving the same message about having more than 100 friends in common with me, and he hasn't sent me a friend request, so why should I be the one who breaks down and extends the click of friendship? Even if one of us were to finally have a change of heart and put the request out there, both he and I might always feel like the other's afterthought.
The irony is that these types of stalemates force us to constantly reevaluate our relationships with people whom we may not want to think about much at all, or expose how we feel about people simply by revealing that, yes, we know we have friends in common, but look how we're both perfectly content to leave it at that.
A related strain on real friendship caused by virtual friendship is the phenomena of differing beliefs among Overlap friends (friends who are both real and virtual) about who the other should be friends with: This is an age-old problem most commonly encountered as the division of real-life friends after a breakup. Elvis Costello sang about this in one of the great songs about divorce, “Jacksons, Monk and Rowe.” But in the case of a breakup, at least the factions know who the friends are and what a friend is.
In the virtual world, you may have an Obama-esque policy of adding anyone who wants on to your list and, in so doing, run the risk of being called out for being friends with someone that one of your Overlap friends wishes you weren't. But in the United Nations, relatively democratic societies sit next to dictatorships and enemies. This raises the question: Is a Facebook friends list more like a social senate of disparate and at times even warring voices? Or is it an exclusive, private club of people who really like each other? The answer is, of course, up to individual Facebookers, but the terminology can still be messy, as in: “How could you be friends with that person?”
Ultimately, it's true that Facebook gives us the power to prioritize our friends into multiple lists organized by relationship, location, etc., but they are always already “friends.”
And this makes me worry about the very concept of friendship.
Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero went to great lengths to define true friendship. They liked to talk about how friendship had to be based on shared commitments, virtue, goodness, love and trust.
But in a world where the word “friend” increasingly has come to mean so many different things to so many different people, maybe we need a new word for what we used to mean when we called someone a friend.
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