Facebook friends and “real friends”

Picture of Simone BackFriendship, Facebook-style | Aditya Chakrabortty | Comment is free | The Guardian

This appeared in today’s G2 (the A4 supplement to the Guardian) and it yet again raises the issue of the difference between “Facebook friends” and actual friends. In truth, online friendship had existed long before Facebook became popular, but recent events put the sometimes very hollow nature of online “friendship” into the spotlight.

Specifically, a woman named Simone Back (right) posted as her FB status late last Christmas Day that she had taken all her pills and would be dead soon, whereupon a lot of her “friends” commented that she was an attention-seeker and often claims to have taken all her pills, that it was her choice and that she was a liar. A fair number of her “friends” lived locally and none of them appear to have lifted a finger to check that she was OK. Tragically, this time, she meant what she said and died the following evening.

While he acknowledges the facts that online friendships and social networking sites allow friends (who were not originally online friends) to stay in touch when separated and also allow the severely disabled and housebound to experience any type of friendship, he goes on to the issue of how much money it makes for Facebook, how it asks personal questions so as to target advertising at you, how it forces you to present yourself in one of a few set ways and so on. Conversation becomes a means of “exchanging data as rapidly and efficiently as possible, rather than as a recreational activity”, and as people restrict their interactions to “short, sharp updates on what you’re thinking Right Now”, their friendships “will naturally become more breathless and shallow”.

First off, Facebook is far from the only form of online friendship, but even that offers more than just “short, sharp updates” — people can post “notes” which can be as long as they like, and that they can show to whoever they like (friends, friends of friends, networks, only themselves, specific people). People also don’t have to answer most of the questions on a Facebook profile, including their relationship status. They don’t have to be visible to people other than their friends if they don’t want to (so you’ll sometimes see conversations in which people are addressed, but their comments are invisible to you). And people can conduct themselves however they like — much as with offline relationships, people can be as shallow or nasty as they like, or as deep and loving and supportive as they can possibly be. The same is true of friendships conducted over email, or LiveJournal, or Bebo, or any other electronic medium. The electronic medium, as far as the user is concerned, is just a means to an end.

I think one way of reducing the stigma of electronic friendships is by removing the term “friend” from the business of making contact; that way, people have no illusions that those they just know a bit online are their friends. Some sites have already started doing this (the social blogging site Dreamwidth, for example, replaces “friends” with “access”, meaning the contact can read your protected entries, and “subscription”, meaning their blog appears in your reading list). That way, we can decide for ourselves who our friends are, which is how it works in life in general, after all, and if we call someone a friend even though we have not met them, nobody will think that they are anything other than a real friend.

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