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Real friendship

As it's coming up to Christmas, a nice post about the value of friendship. Many of you will have read William
Deresiewicz's article in the Chronicle entitled Faux Friendship, which
decries the loss of 'real' friendship in the social networking age. I
ought to say that compared with most anti-social media pieces of
journalism, it's well written and coherent. But it's still wrong, and
based largely on ignorance.

We get a sense of where the article is going early on:

"The Facebook phenomenon, so sudden and forceful a distortion of social
space, needs little elaboration. Having been relegated to our screens,
are our friendships now anything more than a form of distraction?"

The language is telling here – Facebook is a 'distortion' of social space, not an enhancement or a complement. Friendships are 'relegated' to screens, not elaborated through them. We then get on to the key question:

"If we have 768 "friends," in what sense do we have any?"

I think the nature of relationships and friendships and the way online activity influences them is fascinating, so I'm not saying we shouldn't ask questions like this, but you know we are going to have a 'camelot' type argument any moment, which will refer back to some golden age of friendship. Sure enough, it comes:

"Classical friendship, now called romantic friendship, persisted through
the 18th and 19th centuries, giving us the great friendships of Goethe
and Schiller, Byron and Shelley, Emerson and Thoreau."

This is the classic argument that things now aren't as good as they were, and look, I've cherry-picked some examples from the whole of history to prove it. This is akin to why other supermarket queues always seem to progress quicker than yours – you can only be in one queue while there are many 'other queues', therefore statistically, it is likely that at least one will progress quicker than yours. Because we are egocentric we interpret this in relation to ourselves. It's the same with history, we only have the present to look at since we can only live in one time – compared with all of history there will always be better examples in the past. So when he argues:

"no one in a very long time has talked about friendship the way Montaigne and Tennyson did."

No-one talks about anything the way Montaigne and Tennyson did because they lived in a different age. But to argue that people don't have close friendships now is absurd. Kingsley Amis and Phillip Larkin certainly had that type of friendship, and to choose some more recent low-brow examples how about David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Ant and Dec? Now they may not be Byron and Shelley from an artistic sense, but you can't deny this is friendship as any age would understand it?

Having set up a decline in the nature of friendship, he then gets onto social media:

We haven't just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such
moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have
turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless
public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

I agree, this is something new, and is certainly a tweak to friendship. But when you broadcast like this, you do so knowing that most people will ignore it, someone might pick up on it, and maybe an exchange will happen. It hasn't really cost you anything to do. I'd also add that when you form online friendships it's with people who do more than give you an account of what they are doing. The media's simplification that twitter is about 'telling people what you had for breakfast' is missing the point.

But what really irritates me about such articles is how condescending they are, as if we're all to stupid to understand and only the author has seen the light. For example:

The absurd idea, bruited about in the media, that a MySpace profile or
"25 Random Things About Me" can tell us more about someone than even a
good friend might be aware of

I don't know anyone who believes this, people are quite capable of having different types and ranges of friendships. Only for journalists does it seem to be a binary choice between online and face to face. They also speak from a position of relative ignorance usually. Deresiewicz seems to have used facebook, and that's about it. It maybe that Facebook does afford slightly shallow relationships, although I suspect we'd find a wide variety. When I think of my online friends most of the ones I would classify as friends I know through blogs, but not all, twitter (which he deplores for its brevity) is perfectly capable of creating and sustaining real friendships. So when Deresiewicz argues:

"when I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I
love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or
their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character. This one's
emotional generosity, that one's moral seriousness, the dark humor of a

I think 'yes that's exactly what I think about my online friends.' When I went to Alt-C this year I met some people face to face that I have regarded as friends for some time. Let's take Alan Cann for example, we hadn't met face to face for various reasons, but it was inevitable we would. When I met Alan at ALT-C it was great, but it was also kind of irrelevant – most of our interaction will remain via blogs, twitter, or whatever else comes along. Online friendship isn't 'face to face friendship in waiting'.

One of the common tests of friendship is 'would they lend you money?' and this is sometimes used to demonstrate that online friendship isn't real (Josie Fraser has a stronger test including "In the event of a zombie apocalypse, would you throw yourself between me and the oncoming brain-ravenous hoard?"). I kind of had this question answered earlier in the year when my wife asked for sponsorship for the half marathon. Lots of people who I have never met stumped up real cash. 

I'm not sure why people are so obsessed with the term 'friends' and whether one person qualifies or not. It's all a bit school playground. Are the people I regularly exchange blog comments with or tweets with 'friends'? What about those I only occassionally interact with? I think so, but maybe we do need more terms since being online has opened up whole new niches in 'friendship' which different people occupy.

But as it's Christmas let's stick with 'friends'. Here's my test for online friends – let's call it the 'George Bailey test'. If, through no fault of your own, you got yourself in a fix like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, and you really needed the help of your friends to get you out of it, would the online ones help? In my case, I'd say, absolutely.


  • AJ Cann

    After striving for irrelevance for so many years, it’s great to have finally achieved it 😉
    But I know what you mean. It’s unfortunate that the term “friend” has been chosen for these online connections. Maybe the day that term slips away will indicate the point where we have a mature understanding of these tools.

  • Martin

    I know you know this Alan, but feel I should clarify anyway – obviously it’s not you who is irrelevant but rather whether we needed to meet to still be ‘friends’ (it does sound sooo childish).

  • Anon

    I’ve been mulling this issue over quite a lot over the last few days.
    I am an educational technologist. Virtually all of my communication with people takes place online, generally in the public domain (Twitter, blogs, etc.), and with people who know me professionally. I often feel emotionally isolated, because although I view these people as ‘friends’ in one sense, it wouldn’t be wise, or appropriate, for me to express myself fully through these channels. If I’m feeling low, for example, or am struggling with a personal issue, I would hold back from expressing that in the public domain (as many of us would).
    Most of us have a host of people we CAN turn to in these situations, and we might use any of a number of communication channels to do so. As it happens, I don’t, but this isn’t the fault of Twitter, or blogs, Facebook or other social networking sites. It is a product of the way I am; someone who finds maintaining meaningful and supportive social connections difficult, for a whole host of reasons.
    I suspect that William Deresiewicz is undergoing a similar experience – only it seems he is projecting his own thoughts, feelings and behaviours – those of a person who struggles to maintain meaningful, positive personal relationships – onto the rest of the population.
    Looking at his bio – the (dissatisfied) product of an ‘elite’ education, a critic who has produced controversial, negative reviews of works by some excellent authors… I’m not surprised he has trouble making and maintaining friendships.
    If I were you, I wouldn’t get hot under the collar about it 😉 But perhaps that is because it is Christmas and I am feeling rather apathetic about lots of things… being the person I am 😀

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