The internet has often been referred to as the digital Wild West and the analogy is, to my mind, quite fitting. The internet is by and large a lawless place filled with wonderful things, horrendous things and of course mountains of pornography (I’ll let you judge whether that fits into the former or latter category, I have an article discussing it here: http://benjaminthomasjones.com/?p=129). As the Wild West was for the new American republic, Facebook is the new frontier of social communication. It is a place where digital pioneers interact, in some cases occasionally, in others on a daily or even hourly basis. Australia has some 14 million internet users and of them, some 9.2 million have facebook accounts. The question is therefore a worthy one; are facebook friends real friends?

As would befit the Wild West, there are no real rules when it comes to virtual friendship and the social protocol or netiquette which some users adhere to are shamelessly disregarded by others. One confusing factor about facebook friends is there is no way to establish a criteria for adding (or deleting) people. Facebook itself asks that you ‘know’ the person you are adding but what does that mean? Do you have to be long-time friends with someone to add them, casual acquaintance, work colleague, friend of a friend, vaguely remember them from somewhere, had a chat once on a mutual friend’s wall, simply saw them post something on a friend of a friend’s wall and thought they sounded interesting? All of those answers are correct and we each can determine how strict or liberal our adding policy is.

On the one extreme then you’ll get the facebook whore. This is a person who for whatever reason is desperate to gain a high friend count. They will accept any request and often request anyone no matter how flimsy the connection. The other extreme is the facebook nazi who will only add a small number of their closest friends and will often delete people periodically if they have not communicated with them recently. Again, there is no sheriff in the Wild West and each extreme (and all middle cases) are as legitimate as the others. But what then can we make of facebook friendship when there is no common understanding as to how to define them?

On the one hand, it needs be stated that facebook and facebook friends have an amazing power for good. One of my closest friends met his wife on facebook. This is not at all an isolated incident. A 2010 survey estimated that some 10% of Australian couples had met on a dating site (which doesn’t include social networking sites). In my own case, I met a woman on facebook who was later to introduce me to my wife at a party. But it isn’t just lovers of course, facebook reconnects us with lost friends and allows us to meet and communicate with new people at a level which would simply not be possible in a pre-internet setting.

Facebook is also a great place to discuss deep issues. A leading status about politics, religion, celebrity culture, weight obsession or any of a thousand other examples will often draw in responses, not only from those who are comfortable with you in real life but from virtually anyone. People by nature love to share their two cents and facebook provides a setting where decorum, social grace and even intelligence are little more than optional extras in public debate.

In the same way, facebook allows us to share our emotions. When we are thrilled about a sports result, a promotion or a dinner with a relative and happily announce it as a stauts, there is a great feeling of connectivity when random friends ‘like’ or express approval. With the bad times also it appears therapeutic to vent to our facebook friends. The one line messages of support, ‘awww chin up mate’, ‘I know how you feel’, ‘hang in there sweet’ and of course the ‘xox’s’ do make us feel better. I suppose digital sympathy is better than none at all.

But can this be called friendship in any real sense? Do real people not need to express themselves in more words than a status update allows? Do real friends not go further than to write ‘love you babe xox’ on someone’s ‘wall’?

In the UK, a charity worker from Brighton tried to share her suffering with serious depression and mental illness on facebook. Feeling utterly alone on Christmas Day 2010, Simone Back announced on facebook that she was going to overdoes on pills and commit suicide. A few ‘friends’ cared to comment on this status. One called her a liar. Another ‘friend’ simply said that it was her choice. Of her 1082 ‘friends’ on facebook not one went round to her house to help her. Not one called the police or an ambulance. Not one tried to call Ms Back and offer any support. Could any of these facebook friends have saved her life? We’ll never know because she did overdoes and died. I can only be reminded of King Solomon’s wisdom when we wrote in the book of Ecclesiastics, ‘two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.’

My conclusion has to be that facebook friends are not real friends. Of course you may meet people on facebook who become real friends but a facebook relationship is not, in itself, enough. The majority of communication is not verbal or written, it needs to be seen and experienced in real life. Typing ‘LOL’ is only a sad masquerade of sharing laughter with a friend. Typing ‘xox’ is a mere mockery of that most beautiful of human contact, hugs and kisses. Sometimes, the most important thing a friend can ever do for you is not to speak but simply to come over and be there for you. It requires virtually no effort to communicate with someone on facebook, their wall is open to you at all points of the day and night. To make time for someone in our busy schedules, to plan your day around meeting with someone places great value on that friendship.

The great Roman statesman Cicero once said that nature has no love of solitude. We all need support and the sweetest support of all is found within the walls of an intimate friendship. Shakespeare said that we must grab onto these friendships with both hands and never let go, ‘Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.’ Friendships like that are impossible to capture within the digital confines of facebook. The true joys and beauty of life can never be shared via a facebook friendship nor can the bitter valleys be passed through together. By all means, keep your facebook friends for the fun and banter they provide but do not be fooled into thinking this virtual paradoy can simulate the real thing. Do not neglect your real friendships because they are more difficult to maintain. The words of Aristotle are timeless and ever so tragic when applied to Ms Back, ‘Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.’

 

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