Faux Friendship

We are connected to everyone. We don’t really know anyone.

| May-June 2010

  • Image of Faux Friendship

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  • Image of Faux Friendship

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.

7/4/2010 6:12:21 AM

Yes, Laura, you did miss the point. If you only saw the article as "negative" (a term that loses more meaning all the time), then maybe you should refrain from reading these "Long intellectual articles", esp. if you don't truly understand the tone or intent. The author is pointing out the very true fact that to consider someone a "friend" in the FB sense, is very often not the same sense of the friends you mentioned. I see people on FB who have over a thousand friends, some even have 3,000 or more. How many people have 1,000+ TRUE friends? I'm a very social person, but in my whole lifetime of living in multiple states and countries, I've never come close to numbers like that. And so, social sites like FB & Myspace connect the world, but also connect people who are only marginally familiar with each other. As for those we were friends with in school, well, it's nice to catch up with some of them, yes. But I myself can attest to the fact that very often we have little in common with those people after we have all grown up and become who we are. Political, social, philosophical differences are the reality. If you add someone on FB, then that person basically has little or no interaction with you, then is that a "friend"? And please don't join the cattle-like hoards who are anti-intellectual. The U.S. needs all the help it can get, and intelligence in not a bad thing.

6/16/2010 4:50:43 PM

Okay, I am a day late and a dollar short so no one will see this. Ironic considering the topic but here goes. I agree the definition of life dynamics is changing and always has. I listened to an excerpt on NPR where a linguistic expert was talking about how techology is changing spelling and grammar with texting etc. He found many of the "old school" complaints comparative to language changes of the past. However, some of the complaints had profound effects and need to be addressed to maintain a standard for future use. I think people need to measure in that sense. I was told when I was young that if I had one or two good friends in life I would be lucky but they were the ones I could count on in very difficult times. Those words could not have been more true. Most people (if they are honest and realistic) will admit that a majority of friendships are commonality and convenience. The new electronic media is certainly easy to use (convenient) and threads together snipets of commonalities (hey I have kids too.). A marketing sensation. Truthfully, although I like everyone I am "friends" with I really don't think I need to know if they won Mafia Wars yesterday or what TV character they think they are.

5/7/2010 12:27:56 AM

I like the comparison of Facebook friends to baseball cards. I agree with much of what this article is saying about the state of friendships today. And I find the history of friendship interesting. I'm in my early 30's and remember what it was like to talk on the telephone to my best friend in 8th grade for an hour a night and aside from seeing her at school and sometimes on the weekends that was the extent of the interaction. These days it is uncommon to go half a day without being "in touch" with a "friend". But it feels to me more of an empty exchange, playing my turn in Scrabble versus sitting across the table from someone who's known me for seventeen years. I'm still adjusting (albeit rebelliously) to commentary made on my life by people that I know yet are also strangers. @ Laura: I didn't get a negative sense from this article and I think you missed the point. Since you are older and you have probably had deep real-life, in person experiences over the span of years with most of your friends on Facebook yes, you will be more likely to want to keep up with what everyone is doing, i.e. looking at family photos, etc. What I took from the article is that friendship is being redefined and is ever changing. Our latch onto technology has begun to change our idea of what friendship is all about. Your definition remains true to you and others in your generation but younger people are creating their own definition of friendship at the same time.

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