A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Computer-assisted friendship

Computer-assisted friendship
Will Fitzgerald

A response to “Faux Friendship,” by William Deresiewicz [1]

Deresiewicz decries social networking sites, especially Facebook, especially in the way that relationships between users of Facebook are called “friends.” Writing a status message is “like pornography.” We have no time for stories. Our relationships are commercialized. We are overwhelmed with the number of false friends. Facebook “seduces” us. It’s a “mirage.” Facebook friends are simulacra of friends. These sites “have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself.” Friendship is devolving.

His argument runs something like this: in the good old days, we had real friends; you know, like Jonathan and David. Then, a lot of things changed—Democracy! Capitalism! Equality! Industrialization! Mass Media! Friendship wasn’t just between male non-homosexuals anymore. And now Facebook is changing things again. It has disadvantages—it affords shallow communications more than deep ones, it’s built for commercial purposes, and so our social relationships are deformed toward commercial ends—and therefore, friendship is doomed. “We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines.” (As further proof: a “recent book on the sociology of modern science” notes that at a networking event (that is, an event whose main purpose is to make social connections), “There do not seem to be any singletons—disconsolately lurking at the margins—nor do dyads appear, except fleetingly.” In other words—at an event created so people could meet other people, people were meeting other people instead of being alone or with one other person.

It is unfortunate that Deresiewicz took out the reactionary essay template, and started filling in the blanks. I think he could describe the advantages and disadvantages, the risks and opportunities of social networking sites. He could help us mitigate against the bad and amplify the good. Instead, he crafted a classic rant, full of guilt-by-association logical fallacies and arguments from silence. He could have helped us understand better what it could mean to be a friend—its limits and extents, instead of just looking backward to the days of “10-page missives.” (You know, in the happy days before universal literacy and a 40-hour work week. Hmm, I’d actually be willing to wager a significant sum of money that the per capita production of the modern equivalent of 10-page missives—what, about 2000 words?—is greater now than in even the days of the Bloomsbury Group.)

I have a few more than 500 “friends” on Facebook. Like many people I know, I would call some of them friends and some of them Facebook friends. By calling someone a “Facebook friend,” I am signaling some attenuation in the meaning of “friend.” Many of these people are co-workers or former co-workers. These people I call co-workers or former co-workers. A few, I am glad to say, I can also call friend.  A few are former students; these I call former students. Many of these are people I sing with throughout the country (avocationally, I enjoy Sacred Harp singing); these I call people I sing with. Some of them are also my friends. Some are members of my family; these I call my wife, my son, my daughter, my niece, my brother, etc. A few are  people who I know through work, colleagues or potential clients or employers, or people whose career I might be able to further, or who might be able to further my career. Most of these I would call a Facebook friend, but probably not a friend.

You see what I am doing, I think. That Facebook decided to call this connection friend does not imply that I adopt these connections as friendships. Facebook’s adoption of the term friend has more to do with some of the social and cultural factors which Deresiewicz, in his calmer moments, describes well, than with Facebook friend changing the very nature of friendship. And I don’t think I am especially aware; the existence of the expression Facebook friend in and of itself signals this, as I stated previously.

Some have argued strongly that social networking sites like Facebook should have a more nuanced public ontology of relationships; a teacher’s primary school students are not “friends” like the teacher’s co-workers are, and they shouldn’t have access to the same pictures, statuses, etc. [2]. Fair enough; this is a real issue. In point of fact, Facebook, has recently announced a revision of the user profile [3], including something called “Featured Friends”:

You can now highlight the friends who are important to you, such as your family, best friends or teammates. Create new groups of friends, or feature existing friends lists. I opted to feature my Ultimate Frisbee teammates, giving the rest of my friends a way to learn more about that part of my life.

Also included are more structured ways to describe one’s work and school history, and other facets of one’s life. But, one must say, this is likely mostly to benefit Facebook; most of the people in my social network either already know or do not care that Dan Fitzgerald is my brother, for example; and that Daniel E Fitzgerald is the Facebook account he has. But the people who do care are Facebook itself and the companies to which it sells advertising and other network data. Knowing that this account belongs to my brother instead of just my friend is of great economic value to them—of course, by this I mean the social network, now annotated with relationship labels.

I suspect there will be, and perhaps should be, a pushback against this further structuring of relationship labeling. I suspect we may even long for the day when we just labeled people as (Facebook) friend, bleached of the depth of meaning I have in my real friendships and other relationships.

I entitled this essay “computer-assisted friendship,” because, in general, I am very glad that networking and computer technology has made it easier to maintain friendships and relationships with a wider variety of people, from my past and my present, who live near me and who far away from me, at levels ranging from transactional, to superficial, to amusing, and to deep engagement, in ways not so easily supported by the technologies of paper, pen, highway transportation systems, and a postal service.

So, I’m grateful for all these “friends” and friends: The girl from my high-school Christian band lives on a farm not so far away. Interesting. The singing friend with whom I share jokes, car rides, and nurturing wisdom. I’m grateful. The singing friend from a red state with whom I never discussed politics, but who posts anti-tax and pro-America messages. We’re learning how to engage and disagree respectfully. The woman whom I have barely met, but who is a recent widow and who posts long and heart-breaking weblog posts as well as Auburn University football fandom. A call to prayer, and a new team to know about. The artist whose work in on our walls. I’m glad to know about her trips to Africa and where she’s selling her art. The pastor in San Francisco who worries that technology will destroy friendship? I hope this essay will lessen his worries.

[1] Deresiewicz, William, “Faux Friendship,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, December 6, 2009, http://chronicle.com/article/Faux-Friendship/49308, accessed December 9, 2010.

[2] Adams, Paul, “The Real Life Social Network v2,” http://www.slideshare.net/padday/the-real-life-social-network-v2, accessed December 9, 2010.

[2] Wiseman, Josh, “Introducing the New Profile,” December 5, 2010. http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=462201327130 , accessed December 9, 2010.


One response to “Computer-assisted friendship

  1. Daniel Lemire December 10, 2010 at 5:27 am

    Without the Internet, I would be an asocial geek living in my parents’ basement. I met my wife on the Web, her nickname was galaxy, her prose was flawless.

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