15 November, 2014

The changing definition of 'friend'

A while back I heard an article on the radio about a woman who had set herself the target of phoning a certain number of her Facebook friends over the period of a year. Her aim was to reconnect with people she hadn't spoken to for years. She missed the kind of relationship which she (and I) remembered from her teenage years where she would get in from school and then pick up the phone and chat to one of her friends. She missed the intimacy and nuanced voice-to-voice conversations that you can have by phone, but which are almost impossible to have on line.

What surprised me, though, was the number of people she was proposing to phone. I can't recall exact details, but I know that it was in the high tens. How could all these people be friends, I wondered, and how on earth would she find that she had anything to say to all of them. Conversations by phone are considerably more in depth and demanding than communicating via someone's Facebook wall, for example.

This got me thinking about the nature of friendship and the change in the meaning of the word 'friend' that has been precipitated by Facebook and other social networking sites. In my book a friend is someone I know well, who I can trust, who I have things in common with, who I can sit down and really talk to over a cup of coffee. But a Facebook friend is none of these things -- not by definition, anyway. It is possible that a 'real' friend (as per my definition) can be a Facebook friend too, but a Facebook friend does not have to have any of the characteristics of a 'real' friend. And that, of course, is how people manage to have so many Facebook friends. . .but they're not really friends at all!

I've noticed something similar with LinkedIn. I had someone connect to me the other day who categorised me as one of their friends. This is someone who used to work in the same unit as me. We didn't work together as such, and we certainly weren't friends. Not in my book, anyway -- we had no social relationship separate from work. In my book we were colleagues. Yet this colleague is twenty years younger than me and so I wonder whether, being fully of the social networking generation, his definition of 'friend' is simply different from mine. His definition is informed by Facebook, and mine is not.

So, it seems that the on-line world really is affecting all aspects of our lives -- even the semantics of concepts as old and basic to human nature as friendship.

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