Monday, December 31, 2007

The Meaning of Friendship

At the end of each semester in my class, my students and I discuss the implications of technology on the individual. This year, during our discussion, one of my students brought up Myspace, Facebook, Friendster-type sites. We first discussed this type of technology in terms of impression management. How do people construct their pages, why do they put on/leave off certain things, etc.

But then the conversation got a bit deeper (at least from my standpoint). Someone mentioned that she thought the number of friends people had listed was also a sign of impression management. Woo-hoo! Not only did she have a great point, but she was also extending the discussion. But that is a side note. The real point is that such websites are paragons of the changes our social lives have undergone in the face of technology.

As I pointed out to my students, how can you possibly be "friends" with 150 people? The answer is obviously that you can't. There is not enough time in a day, nor enough energy to actually be friends with these people. It reminds me of a distinction my Spanish teacher made between the words for friend and acquaintance. "Friend" in Spanish denotes roughly five or fewer close friends (what we might call best friends in English). Acquaintance stands in for all the other people who you are friendly with, but who aren't necessarily that close.

What we have on sites like Myspace, then, are acquaintances, not friends. This brings me to three questions: 1) Why is having a lot of "friends" on Myspace, etc. considered a status symbol, if we know that most of those friendships are quite shallow?; 2) Is technology actually hindering us from having true friendships with four or five specific individuals?; 3) What is the interaction between privacy and perceived closeness?

I'm most interested in question three right now. Sites like Myspace, and even blogs that function more like live journals, often present quite a bit of personal information about people. Impression management comes into this, but on the other side, the audience gets an inside view into things they might not otherwise know about one of their acquaintances. I venture that this phenomenon creates a false sense of closeness (much like mass emails that detail all the cool things that you have done over the past 6 months - I really hate those, by the way). So, it may not matter that I don't get to talk to you, or even see you, very often, because I know that you had a boob job and that your job is going really well.

Social network research shows us that people had fewer strong ties in 2004 than in 1985 (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears, 2006). Why? Perhaps it's the result of technology, as the authors of the 2006 paper point out. Perhaps it's the over-all devaluing of strong, lasting relationships. Social scientists are pursuing answers to these questions as we speak.

However, in my non-scientist mode, I bemoan the fact that I'm so busy that sometimes the only contact I have with people important to me is through their blog, or in a mass email. I don't like it, even if I can talk to my mom on my cell as I walk home through a beautiful autumn day that I really should just be appreciating for itself.


Anonymous said...

I doubt most people think Facebook friends are the same as real life friends. I also think that having too many FB friends is viewed to be just as bad as having too few.

Personally, the internet has helped me make close friends, for I am socially awkward and afraid of telephones.

You know what I found most interesting from those findings? That more people are listing their spouse as a (or the only) person with whom they discuss "important things," yet divorce has gone up. I wonder what's going on there? Does counting your spouse as a confidant protect or hinder the longevity of your marriage?

bookmobile said...

It's like I've said to you before: sometimes I can find out more about the lives of even my closest friends by looking at their blogs/myspaces than by talking to them. Although, my friends and I are all a bit too old for social networking sites to occupy that much importance in our lives.

TDEC said...

I do feel like it's hard to find the time to spend on friends, and blogs/facebook are a way to catch up. I've been really wondering about having too many "virtual" friends - people on the list, but not actually very meaningful to me (but whom I don't want to refuse to friend), but as a way of keeping up an acquaintance it is great. It means that I know if someone I like but am not hugely close to is in town, and can meet them for coffee; it is that simple to me. As a status symbol, though, the point of Facebook friends, I guess, is that it is impossible to distinguish between the acquaintances and the friends, thereby making them the same in people's eyes...

I don't know that blogs and social sites account for our fewer close ties. I think certainly our more geographically mobile lifestyles have something to do with it as well. Technology has allowed me to keep in closer touch with people I am close with; maybe that leads me to look less for people around here - but maybe it is also just harder to keep making new friends, to keep finding people with whom you have enough in common, particularly when entering an established set of networks.

monsoon said...

Personally, i'm not into collecting "friends/acquaintances" on Facebook so I don't stew about my numbers. I have had "friends," however, boast about size and always knowing their number count. My guess is that numbers are a quick and easy measure of status! Saying that your popular (i'm nice and damn it, people like me) is not as believable as SEEING it!

I utilize technology to keep in touch with family and friends, therefore, I tend to side with the camp that sez internet is good for friendships! It helps me meet new people and maintain my current friendships. I concur with tdec! I also use Facebook/AIM to keep in touch with college acquaintances and meet up for coffee when they are in town. How convenient!

As for a false sense of closeness... I think you're absolutely right. Getting a small glimpse into the personal life of another does not equal friendship!

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit skeptical too how many people actually treat the number of MySpace, Facebook, etc. friends as 'real friends'; then again, I have little insight into how adolescents or young adults interpret these things. If it is the case that there's a widespread tendency to not only show off but truly regard these on-line rosters as evidence of 'real friendships' rather than as a more or less impressive rolodex of acquaintances, that would be worrisome. But like Anomie I'm rather skeptical that this is the case; and I suspect that having too many friends can be taken as a sign of shallowness...just as, in high school, the 'most popular' person was not always regarded as the most trustworthy.

Your questions about the impact of technology on structures of privacy and intimacy/closeness are very interesting. I remember - I'm this old - that my friendships in high school and college were largely conducted, if actual interaction was not possible, by landline phone and through letters: no e-mail, no cell phones, no blogs, social network sites, etc. I enjoy the fact that I can now much more easily connect with valued friends, and I don't think that ease of connection that technology provides diminishes the quality of those friendships. What seems to me to be somewhat more affected is how I relate to strangers, rather; everyone comes across as much more strongly individuated by their own private conversations via cellphone and Blackberry, their own private musical world via their iPods, etc. Why see someone in person about a problem if you can work it out via your cell while waiting for a bus? I know that this seems like a decided advantage but it has a strange impact where you feel like public spaces are sliced up into narrower domains by everyone's individual private concerns, tastes, etc.