We live in an age when friendship has become both all and nothing at all. Already the characteristically modern relationship, it has in recent decades become the universal one: the form of connection in terms of which all others are understood, against which they are all measured, into which they have all dissolved. Romantic partners refer to each other as boyfriends and girlfriends. Spouses boast they are best friends. Parents urge their young children and beg their teenage ones to think of them as friends. Teachers, clergy, and even bosses seek to mitigate and legitimate their authority by asking those they oversee to regard them as friends. As the anthropologist Robert Brain has put it, we’re friends with everyone now.
Yet what, in our brave new mediated world, is friendship becoming? The Facebook phenomenon, so sudden and forceful a distortion of social space, needs little elaboration. (If we have 768 “friends,” in what sense do we have any?) Yet Facebook and MySpace and Twitter—and whatever we’re stampeding for next—are just the latest stages of a long attenuation. They have accelerated the fragmentation of consciousness, but they didn’t initiate it. They have reified the idea of universal friendship, but they didn’t invent it. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone. We may pride ourselves today on our aptitude for friendship, but it’s not clear that we still even know what it means.
How did we come to this pass? The idea of friendship in ancient times could not have been more different. Far from being ordinary and universal, friendship, for the ancients, was rare, precious, and hard-won. In a world ordered by relations of kin and kingdom, friendship’s elective affinities were exceptional, even subversive. David loved Jonathan despite the enmity of Saul; Achilles’ bond with Patroclus outweighed his loyalty to the Greek cause. Friendship was a high calling, demanding extraordinary qualities of character, rooted in virtue and dedicated to the pursuit of goodness and truth.
The rise of Christianity put the classical ideal in eclipse—Christian thought discouraged intense personal bonds, for the heart should be turned to God. The classical notion of friendship, however, was revived by the Renaissance. Truth and virtue, again, above all: “Those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship,” wrote Montaigne, “for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him.”
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. Wordsworth addressed his magnum opus to his “dear Friend” Coleridge. Meanwhile, the growth of commercial society was shifting the grounds of personal life toward the conditions essential for the emergence of modern friendship. Capitalism, said David Hume and Adam Smith, by making economic relations impersonal, allowed for private relationships based on nothing other than affection and affinity.
We don’t know the people who make the things we buy and don’t need to know the people who sell them. The ones we do know—neighbors, parishioners, people we knew in school, parents of our children’s friends—have no bearing on our economic life. We are nothing to one another but what we choose to become, and we can unbecome it whenever we want.
Add to this the growth of democracy, an ideology of universal equality and inter-involvement. We are citizens now, not subjects, bound together directly rather than through allegiance to a monarch. But what is to bind us emotionally, make us something more than an aggregate of political monads? One answer was nationalism, but another grew out of the 18th-century notion of social sympathy: friendship or, at least, friendliness.
It is no accident that fraternity made a third with liberty and equality as the watchwords of the French Revolution. Wordsworth in Britain and Whitman in America made visions of universal friendship central to their democratic vistas. For Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, friendship was to be the key term of a new domestic democracy.
Now we can see why friendship has become the characteristically modern relationship. Modernity believes in equality, and friendships are egalitarian. Modernity believes in individualism. Friendships serve no public purpose and exist independent of all other bonds. Modernity believes in choice. Friendships, unlike blood ties, are elective. Modernity believes in self-expression. Friends, because we choose them, give us back an image of ourselves. Modernity believes in freedom. We can be friends with whomever we want, however we want, for as long as we want.
Social changes play into the question as well. As industrialization uprooted people from extended families and traditional communities and packed them into urban centers, friendship emerged to salve the anonymity and rootlessness of modern life. The process is virtually instinctive now: You graduate from college, move to New York or L.A., and assemble the gang that takes you through your 20s. Only it’s not just your 20s anymore. We have yet to find a satisfactory name for that period of life, now typically a decade but often a great deal longer, between the end of adolescence and the making of definitive life choices. The one thing we know is that friendship is absolutely central to it.
Inevitably, the classical ideal has faded. The image of the one true friend, a soul mate rare to find but dearly beloved, has disappeared from our culture. We have our better or lesser friends, even our best friends, but no one in a very long time has talked about friendship the way Montaigne and Tennyson did. That glib neologism bff bespeaks an ironic awareness of the mobility of our connections: Best friends forever may not be on speaking terms by this time next month.
As for the moral content of classical friendship, its commitment to virtue and mutual improvement, that too has been lost. We have ceased to believe that a friend’s highest purpose is to summon us to the good by offering moral advice and correction. We practice, instead, the nonjudgmental friendship of unconditional acceptance and support—“therapeutic” friendship, in sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s scornful term. A friend fulfills her duty, we suppose, by taking our side—validating our feelings, supporting our decisions, helping us to feel good about ourselves. We’re busy people; we want our friendships fun and friction-free.
Yet even as friendship became universal and the classical ideal lost its force, a new kind of idealism arose, a new repository for some of friendship’s deepest needs: the group friendship or friendship circle. Companies of superior spirits go back at least as far as Pythagoras, but the culture of group friendship reached its apogee in the 1960s. Two of the counterculture’s most salient and ideologically charged social forms were the commune—a community of friends in self-imagined retreat from a heartlessly corporatized society—and the rock ’n’ roll “band,” its name evoking Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men, its great exemplar the Beatles.
Communes, bands, and other ’60s friendship groups were celebrated as joyous, creative places of eternal youth. To go through life within one was the era’s utopian dream; it is no wonder the Beatles’ breakup was received as a generational tragedy. It is also no wonder that ’60s group friendship began to generate its own nostalgia as the baby boomers began to hit their 30s. The Big Chill, in 1983, depicted boomers attempting to recapture the magic of a late-’60s friendship circle. (“In a cold world,” the movie’s tagline reads, “you need your friends to keep you warm.”) The TV series Thirtysomething certified group friendship as the new adult norm.
It was only in the 1990s that a new generation, remaining single well into adulthood, found its own images of group friendship in Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and, of course, Friends. By that point, however, the notion of friendship as a redoubt of moral resistance, a shelter from normative pressures and incubator of social ideals, had disappeared. Your friends didn’t shield you from the mainstream, they were the mainstream.
And so we return to Facebook. With the social-networking sites of the new century—Friendster and MySpace were launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004—the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing has destroyed both its own nature and that of individual friendship itself. Facebook’s very premise is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.
I remember realizing a few years ago that most of the members of what I thought of as my “circle” didn’t actually know one another. One I’d met in graduate school, another at a job, one in Boston, another in Brooklyn, one lived in Minneapolis now, another in Israel, so that I was ultimately able to enumerate some 14 people, none of whom had ever met any of the others. To imagine that they added up to a circle, an embracing and encircling structure, was a belief, I realized, that violated the laws of feeling as well as those of geometry.
Facebook, however, seduces us into exactly that illusion, inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group. Visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity. “It’s like they’re all having a conversation,” a woman I know once said about her Facebook page, full of comments from friends and friends of friends. “Except they’re not.”
Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something we all hug privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word. Now we speak of the Jewish “community” and the medical “community” and the “community” of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have instead is, if we’re lucky, a “sense” of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience.
Until a few years ago, you could share your thoughts with only one friend at a time (on the phone, say), or maybe with a small group in person. And when you did, you were talking to specific people, and you tailored what you said, and how you said it, to who they were—their interests, their personalities, most of all, your degree of mutual intimacy. Now we’re broadcasting our stream of consciousness to all 500 friends at once. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments; we have stopped thinking of them as individuals.
It’s amazing how fast things have changed. Not only don’t we have Wordsworth and Coleridge anymore, we don’t even have Jerry and George. Today, Ross and Chandler would be writing on each other’s walls. If Carrie and the girls did manage to find the time for lunch, they’d be too busy checking their BlackBerrys to have a real conversation. Sex and Friends went off the air just six years ago, and already we live in a different world.
The new group friendship, already vitiated itself, is also cannibalizing our individual friendships as the boundaries between the two blur. The most disturbing thing about Facebook is the extent to which people are willing—are eager—to conduct their private lives in public: “hola cutie-pie! i’m in town on wednesday. lunch?” “Julie, I’m so glad we’re back in touch. xoxo.” “Sorry for not calling, am going through a tough time right now.”
Perhaps I need to surrender the idea that the value of friendship lies precisely in the space of privacy it creates: not the secrets that two people exchange so much as the unique and inviolate world they build up between them, the spider web of shared discovery they spin out, slowly and carefully, together.
But surely Facebook has its benefits. Long-lost friends can reconnect, far-flung ones can stay in touch. I wonder, though. Having recently moved across the country, I thought Facebook would help me feel connected to the friends I’d left behind. I find the opposite is true. Reading about the mundane details of their lives, a steady stream of trivia and ephemera, leaves me feeling both empty and unpleasantly full, as if I had just binged on junk food, and precisely because it reminds me of the real sustenance, the real knowledge, we exchange by e-mail or phone or face-to-face.
As for getting back in touch with old friends—yes, when they’re people you really love, it’s a miracle. But most of the time, they’re not. They’re someone you knew for a summer in camp, or a midlevel friend from high school. They don’t matter to you as individuals anymore; they matter because they made up the texture of your experience at a certain moment in your life. Tear them out of that texture—read about their brats, look at pictures of their vacation—and they mean nothing. Tear out enough of them and you ruin the texture itself, replace a matrix of feeling and memory, the deep subsoil of experience, with a spurious sense of familiarity.
In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories. E-mail, with its rapid-fire etiquette, already trimmed the letter to a certain acceptable maximum, perhaps 1,000 words. Now, with Facebook, the box is shrinking even more, leaving maybe a third of that as the conventional limit for a message, far less for a comment. (And we all know the deal on Twitter.) Posting information is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition. Exchanging stories is like making love. It is mutual. It is intimate. It takes patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill—and it teaches those qualities, too.
They call them social-networking sites for a reason. Networking once meant something specific: climbing the jungle gym of professional contacts in order to advance your career. The truth is that Hume and Smith were not completely right. Commercial society did not eliminate the self-interested aspects of making friends, it just changed the way we went about it. Now, in the age of the entrepreneurial self, even our closest relationships are being pressed onto this template.
A recent book on the sociology of modern science describes a networking event at a West Coast university: “There do not seem to be any singletons—disconsolately lurking at the margins—nor do dyads appear, except fleetingly.” No solitude, no friendship, no space for refusal—the exact contemporary paradigm. At the same time, the author assures us, “face time” is valued in this “community” as a “high-bandwidth interaction,” offering “unusual capacity for interruption, repair, feedback, and learning.”
Actual human contact, rendered “unusual” and weighed by the values of a systems engineer. We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines. The face of friendship in the new century.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. Everything I Know About Life I Learned By Reading Jane Austen will be out next year. Excerpted from The Chronicle Review (Dec. 6, 2009), a section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for social/cultural coverage and general excellence.