"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
November 6, 2007

Facebook, The Tyranny Of Time And Instrumental Friendship

Is Facebook changing how we define friendship?

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a piece on Facebook, expanding on comments I’ve made previously, here and here. But, like so many things, I can’t make the time to do the topic justice.

And, time is one of the two big questions I have when considering social networking sites like Facebook. Namely, where do people find the time?

One good thing about Facebook (and possibly a reason for it’s success), is you can use the site with a minimal commitment. It takes little time to set up a page, find some friends and get found. Moreover, the site (through its applications), does an excellent job of being a placeholder for other Web 2.0 applications like Flixster and Last.fm. Although my objections to following the crowd are still in place, I’m finding that via Facebook, these sharing options are easier to deal with.

But, they still take time.

A deeper problem, however, is the question of Facebook and friendship. I’ve already commented on the issue of “re-opening closed relational loops” and dilution (or abstraction) of the idea of community. But, I’m also beginning to wonder about the whole definition of friendship. It’s often claimed that Facebook’s initial success was down to its ability to map real world social networks. Perhaps. Whilst many my Facebook “friends” are people I’ve actually met, it soon becomes clear that many Facebook users have significant “virtual” networks.

“Is this friendship? Or is it playing a game called Friendship, using someone else’s words, by someone else’s rules? As I remember it, friendship was never that easy. It takes time to form, involves as much challenge as enjoyment, reaches and pulls on the parts of you that your relationships with acquaintances don’t. Because friends take time to prove themselves, you can turn to them for specific, not general, responses to you.

My worry is that this new activity will actually be mistaken for “friendship” in much the same way that 10 minutes of “quality time” with children can be mistaken for the real labour of love required to raise them. Meaningful engagement with others, whether children, friends or those who need our help, brings the greatest of rewards, but for that reason, it is not easily achieved. It demands the most precious of commodities: time and attention.”
Indra Adnan – Friendship by Numbers

It’s not that I don’t want to ever extend the title of friend to people I’ve not met in the flesh – virtual friendships are, of course, a reality, so to speak. But, when I think of friendship, there is a “good and bad,” seeing “behind the mask” attribute that is essential. Part of the danger (or appeal) of virtual identity is that the person we present can be little more than an avatar, a narrative fiction. Of course, this is often true of the person we present to real world, depending on context and circumstance. However, we assume that in the real world friends are those people who can see beyond this (or to whom we confer permission to see beyond, or reflect what is beyond the facade). My Facebook page is true, in so far as each component of it is veridical, but it is little more than a partial and fragmentary snapshot.

“Because Facebook is a social media network and because it is built in the spirit of individualism, relationships are often exploited and used for personal gain. This goes too far into the vain of personal ambition that it abuses the relationship definition of friend.”
John Santic – The 3 Maladies of Facebook relationships

The danger is not just that we will cheapen the definition of friendship, but that we will conflate it with networking. Networking is a bad thing, but we need to recognise that networking is an intentional and goal-oriented task. We build networks because we need them and they are successful to the extent that they help us get what we want (a contract, a job etc). Friendship is something different to that.

“But to develop a real friendship we need to see that the other person is trustworthy. “We invest time and effort in them in the hope that sometime they will help us out. It is a kind of reciprocal relationship,” said Dr Reader, “What we need is to be absolutely sure that a person is really going to invest in us, is really going to be there for us when we need them…It’s very easy to be deceptive on the internet.””
James Randerson – Social networking sites don’t deepen friendships

[tags] Facebook, Friendship, Social Networking [/tags]

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John Santic 17 years ago

Nice article and thanks for the link. I appreciate your broad perspective on the topic.

brodie 17 years ago

Fernando – good post. I showed my wife someone’s facebook page where they had over 500 friends. I exclaimed, “no one can have 500 friends”. She said perhaps friends on Facebook are the people you know who would come to your funeral? Since then I’ve expaned the people I’ve got in my friends list to include people that I would say I don’t have an ‘active’ friendship with but who, in the unfortuante event of my death, might just come to my funeral.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Hey John, thanks for stopping by.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Brodie – that’s a thoughtful perspective. However, I’m not sure I can agree. The analogy makes a lot of sense if one lives a very public life – after all people of fame and significant achievement are visibly mourned by those they impacted even though they might not have had a personal relationship. I on’t think my life fits within that framework.

Let me give you a real example. One of my facebook “friends” is someone I had a visible connection with years back and where it not for my constant moving around, we would probably still move in the same networks. That alone merits inclusion in the Friend list for me! However, life being what it is, we had dropped out of contact. This friend had assumed that I was still living in the UK and was unaware that I had even moved to India, let alone moved on to HK.

My impression is that this flies under the “funeral” test – does it not?

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