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.