Battle in Print: Are friends electric? The promise and perils of online social networking

Mark Vernon


A friend of mine went to meet a stranger recently. Only, this person wasn’t really a stranger at all. They had already spent hours together on a social networking site. Judging by her messages, picture and blog, my friend felt confident that she would be likeable… perhaps even lovable. Yet he was also anxious and unsure.

Meeting someone face-to-face has taken on a new meaning with the advent of social networking sites. In a reversal of normal experience, meeting someone is increasingly happening after getting to know them. But do you really know them? Therein lies the frisson and fear.

Part of the problem with this sort of encounter is that, well, screens screen. That is to say, no matter how authentic it may feel, communication over the internet is carried out, for the most part, blind and deaf. When reading an ‘instant message’ or a personal blog, we can neither see the author nor hear them.

It seems that this may be a more serious problem than most would admit. According to research from Dr David Holmes of Manchester Metropolitan University, up to 40 per cent of the information displayed on one social networking site, MySpace, is fabricated. (Footnote 1). And, of course, one cannot always tell which 40 per cent. Holmes believes that many people are being brutalised by the experience of trust in someone being shattered. One day you are pouring your heart out to a virtual buddy and the next this ‘soul mate’ is gone. And perhaps they were never really there at all: they may have become bored, or found someone else or simply switched off. It is no semantic detail that users of such sites speak of ‘friending’ rather than befriending.

Online stalkers steal the headlines. Dr Holmes’ fear is that amongst these perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of stalkers, there exists reams of young people who are shell-shocked and depressed because their ‘best friend’ turned out to be a bully or a bastard. The sceptics will say that it was ever thus; that the rough and tumble of playground relations will always leave some bruised. But on this scale?

The random callousness of the internet is something many are familiar with. Words are slippery signifiers and miscommunication is rife. Many will have sent or received an unintentionally offensive email. Also, with many now preferring to send a cancellation, a rejection, or even a notice of dismissal by email - on the grounds of efficiency - maybe we should not be surprised if the world becomes a little less humane as a result.

Worse still, verifying the identity of the sender is increasingly difficult. Apparently, hackers now trawling social networking sites are collecting details of the children of city bosses so as to impersonate them. They then send emails and attachments to the parents, which the latter don’t think twice about opening. The email from little Sophie or Sebastian then launches a virus that leaves the corporate network ripe for hacking.

But the changing nature of friendship is actually more fundamental. And this may be something inherent to the medium of the internet. Think of it this way: at the beginning of the sixteenth century, on the eve of modernity, Copernicus showed some friends a little notebook. In it he had sketched out his reasons for thinking that the Earth was not at the fixed centre of the universe but rather that it revolves around the sun. This heliocentrism sparked a revolution in thought, for which Galileo famously paid the price. Today, this change in thinking is typically taken as emblematic of scientific progress… which it is. But it has another facet too.

After Copernicus, our planetary home had no significant place in the heavens. It moves continually, randomly through space. This freedom of the Earth to move amongst the stars, as it were, can be seen as a model for our own liberation. Thus, being tied to a particular place seems unbearably constraining; being forced to follow an allotted course in life dangerously undemocratic. Instead, the ability to change is synonymous with freedom; individual choice is crucial to being human.

Now consider the internet again. This infinity of virtual space is one where new ‘stuff’ is routinely heralded as ‘liberating’ and ‘freeing’. Never mind that we can no more make sense of the welter of information with which it presents us than we can see into a black hole. This contemporary celebration of de-centredness is a quintessentially post-Copernican response. It would have been inconceivable before the revolution.

What has this to do with online friendship? Well, striking here is how the great modern writers on friendship depicted their soul mates and kindred spirits. Typically, they are presented as a refuge against the alienation that so much freedom may bring; as a consolation in the face of isolation. ‘When the ways of friends converge, the whole world looks like home for an hour’, wrote Hermann Hesse. ‘It is not wrong to want to be happy, but it is wrong to want to be happy all alone’, judged Albert Camus of the modern condition. ‘I hate the prostitutions of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances’, opined Ralph Waldo Emerson on the shallowness of mere networking.

This, I think, is what the wired generation has to learn - and quite possibly is learning - all over again. If the silicon universe is not to leave one as lonely as Major Tom, it may be necessary to realise that the context for real friendship is not within this infinite, shapeless medium but precisely apart from it - in the close intimacy of embodied exchange. We can of course be friendly online. Like chatting in the corner shop or smiling on the bus, courtesy makes on- and off-line worlds infinitely better places. Nevertheless, there is as big a gap between friendliness and friendship as there is between cooperation and love; we forget the difference at our peril.

If you think this all sounds a bit overstated - like the complaints of someone trying to catch up with Web 2.0 rather than someone running with it - then some more empirical research might be more persuasive. For example, a YouGov report recently suggested we are now losing friends hand over fist. Urban life is to blame, of which wired, mobile living is the quintessential part. In London, for example, over two-fifths of people drift away from their close friends, according to the research. Certainly the urban lifestyle and work brings individuals within the orbit of a wide range of amiable people. But they are good only as acquaintances; they leave one stranded when it comes to real intimacy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, sociologists are tracking similar trends. The American Sociological Review has carried research showing that the average American now has only two close friends, and a quarter don’t have any at all. The number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has risen greatly in the years since the turn of the millennium - that is, during the years in which the internet blossomed. Similarly, both Save the Children and The Children’s Society are increasingly worried that technology is damaging young people’s ability to socialise, often leaving them lonely, disruptive and prone to bullying.

The MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, in her book The Second Self, worries that online living is transforming human psychology by ‘de-skilling’ us. We are less able to be alone, or manage and contain our emotions. Instead, we are developing new intimacies with machines that lead to new dependencies - a wired social existence, a ‘tethered self’. Conversation becomes merely sharing gossip, photos or profiles, and not, on the whole, the deeper aspects of commitment and community.

Although the internet opens gateways of information, it does not teach how to make connections or deal with complexity, and there is the added problem that the information itself can easily be wrong. All this distracts from self-reflection. It nurtures quick, under-considered responses. This alters people’s psychology, begging a few questions: Are the thoughts of people online really their own? Are individuals truly autonomous? Do they have the skills to find meaning? It seems to me that the trouble with the internet is that too often all that which the internet offers is substituted for generating one’s own thoughts, autonomy and meaning.

Nevertheless, the internet is not going to go away, and few would want to cut it out of their social lives. It is as much part and parcel of modern friendship as a pint of beer or the telephone. So the response to the risks that the internet poses to friendship - risks which I think are real - is to be a little wiser about friendship, to reflect on it: what it is, what its demands are, what its perils and promises are. In short, to indulge in the philosophy of friendship.

My own rough definition is that, if the love shared in families is one that longs to care for others, and the love shared by lovers is one that longs to have another, then the love shared by friends is one that longs to know another, and be known by them. This is why friendship is characterised by the act of talking face-to-face. However, it is also qualities like loyalty and trust, and factors like simply making the effort and taking time, that matter enormously in friendship too.

To put it another way, it is quality, not quantity that counts. This is something that most people understand quite intuitively. The evidence is that even the most wired and mobile of individuals try to hold on to a relatively small core of really good friends, perhaps a dozen at most, all the while being friendly with many others. This was demonstrated by research done by BlackBerry. They found that even those enamoured of their PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) tended to use email to keep in touch with those they love, and keep at bay those who were mere acquaintances.

Another way of stating this distinction is to say that the internet is not so much a new forum for friendship, but rather a tool for sustaining friendship - intimacies that ultimately depend for their flourishing on contact in the real world, face-to-face.

It may well be that today we have wider circles of friends because of the internet. And that might be a boon. But beware: there is nothing more ruinous of relationships than thinking they are something they are not. And friendship may be particularly prone to such blind spots as it is something people rarely think about. For, as Aristotle put it, in an age when social networking in the agora was perhaps not so different from the virtual marketplace, ‘the desire for friendship comes quickly; friendship does not’.

Mark Vernon is the author of The Philosophy of Friendship and After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life - www.markvernon.com

 Footnotes

1. YouGov survey.  Total sample size was 2,554 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11th - 13th September 2006. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

 References

McPherson, M., L. Smith-Lovin and M.E. Brashears (1996). ‘Social isolation in America: changes in core discussion networks over two decades’. American Sociological Review 71(3): 353-375.

Turkle, S. (1984). The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York, Simon & Schuster.

 Festival Buzz

Fora TV logo Particle Physics is Sexy

Particle Physics is Sexy [Opens in new window]

"Exactly what debate and diatribe should be about in these challenging days."
Prof Phillipe Sands QC, author, Lawless World