Can we be friends?

Recently I joined a Facebook group, titled “The more Facebook friends you have, the less friends you have in real life;” and it brought up a relevant concern we – the Facebook Culture – have:  are we becoming less social as a result of our social networking?

Because of our rapidly worsening addiction to our technologies, it seems the 21st century will be the time in which many of our universal values as people will be forever realigned to fit out technological needs.  For example, we no longer consider people’s privacy the way we did even just thirty years ago.  Further, we consider ourselves at liberty to say on the Internet anything we want (because after all: it does not hold the same accountability saying the same thing would in person, or in print).  And at the heart of this is the reassessment of what we consider to be the case when we say “friendship.”

What Qualities Must A Friend Have?

Traditionally, a friend necessarily had to exhibit the following qualities in order to be considered friend material:

  1. A desire for what is in one’s best interest
  2. A sense of sympathy and empathy
  3. Honesty in the face of all circumstances, including adversity
  4. Understanding
  5. Compassion
But can we still consider our friendships, today, to exhibit all of those qualities?

For one, the desire for what is in one’s best interest seems to have been eliminated in an age where the economy has moved us back to a state-of-nature-type/ dog-eat-dog world.  More specifically, as a result of the recession economy limiting jobs, and technological advancements rendering many worker’s skills obsolete, we now have to “do what it takes” to keep our jobs and make a living.  As a result of this, it is statistically improbable that all or most of one’s friends can be considered to actually desire what is in our best interest – in fact, we can only assume at this point it is quite the opposite.  The work-aday-world has taken a position of pitting us against each other, which means that many of our friends may love to have dinner with us, but would take our job in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself.

To further this, though, what seems to have evolved in recent years is the more passive version of the dog-eat-dog friendship, which lies in what each can do for the other.  Friendships in the 21st century must serve some sort of mutual benefit, or they cease to exist.  A friend of mine once looked at an old friendship with a former coworker I had and saw that I got nothing other than an occasional lunch partner out of it, and she said “why do you even hang out with her – you get nothing out of this!”  This statement can sum up the extent to which we are willing to align ourselves with others – more and more it is only insofar as the alliance serves a mutual purpose.  Our culture has made us so purposeful and driven, we can no longer just exist together happily.

More alarming than this, though, is the extent to which our friends refrain from being completely honest with us.  Somehow the Facebook Culture went from being honestly realistic to naively optimistic.  In an effort to be “supportive,” we have gone so far as to lie to ourselves and others about the realities of situations that present themselves to us.  Take for example this interaction that I just witnessed, on Facebook:

Friend X:  “Six more people laid off today; could I be next?”
Friend Y:  “Don’t worry!  Everything will work out for the best!!”
Friend Z:  “Yah, girl – they’re just eliminating the people that don’t matter!”

A real friend, rather than trying to offer empty conciliatory words, would be honest with themselves and the situation, and offer the friend real advise:  it doesn’t look good; don’t panic, but take this as a sign to look for a new job.  Friends today are more interested in this naive optimism, which is only supported by the fantastical environment our friendships have moved to – the virtual.

Social Networking – Social Ostracizing

For in the virtual world, we can craft of our friendships what we wish.  We can have fake friends, fake lives, false identities and false values.  On the Internet, it is no holds barred – because it is not in the flesh that we present ourselves, but in a copied, molded and edited version of our selves.  This is how we have entirely changed our set of values, for they are now a carbon copy of what we want, rather than what we actually are.

So our friends no longer hold the same qualities as they once did; one, for example, is in the friendships that we do not even really have.  For example, if I were to look at my Facebook friend’s list, or my Twitter followers icons, I would have to argue that at least three-quarters of them never have had any personal contact with me – and likely never will.  To further this, could I look at all three hundred and thirty five of these people and know, for certain, that if I was in a bind I could call them; of if I need an honest opinion they would give it to me?  Absolutely not.  It is only in a handful of those people that I can find the traditional qualities of a friend, but I am only one of the few in the Facebook Culture who can truly admit this.  If this were not the case, then they would not be referred to as “friends,” – to call them that under the traditional definition of the term is an outright lie.

And it is alarming how much more time we spend on these virtual, false friendships than on our real life relationships.  The Pew Report cites 56% of adult Americans have now gone mobile with social networking sites, with 49% of adult Americans admitting to visiting social networking sites from a cellular device at least once per day.  To further this, 17% of adult Americans claim that it is “very important” for them to be able to post and view posts on Facebook while away from home or work.  What is so alarming about these statistics is the fact that these adult Americans are out and about – living their daily, social lives; yet, all the while they are escaping by wireless technology to a place not social in any sense of the term.

How many times have you been at dinner with a friend, or a loved one, and had them interrupt your conversation to post a Facebook status, or respond to an email?  Or how often have you seen people texting in Twitter updates, because they have no real people to text?  It is alarming that our values of friendship have evolved to what they are today; but to have taken the next step to ostracizing ourselves from the real world because of an obsession with a virtual, social network seems an outright criminal offense to the very fabric of our human experience.

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