“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”
I’m going to have to go with Jane on this one, but I do understand that many people may disagree with me. This afternoon finds me mulling over concepts of friendship and the ways in which the use of social media has diluted those understandings. There are 3,144 quotes about friendship on Goodreads, most of which deal with love–Agape with or without the presence of Eros. But no memorable quote about friendship includes the habit I observe so frequently–namely that of collecting a virtual coterie with whom you have little or no interaction, be it verbal interaction via phone conversation, virtual conversation through a social media outlet, or physical interactions in the real world. That’s not friendship. So, why do we call these individuals “friends” and what is the misuse of this word doing to our ideas about emotional intimacy, fidelity, and how we engage with the world in other, non-virtual spheres?
Counterfeit and the Casual Masquerade
I’m certainly not saying that you should or shouldn’t use social media. I’m using it right now, this very instant. What I am saying is that perhaps we should re-evaluate how we see our online interactions. I had a conversation with an acquaintance this morning, via Facebook, about her friend-hoarding behavior. This is a person I knew, interacted with, and actually befriended physically before we ever exchanged Facebook details. She has something like 2,000 “friends” on that site, is a user of Twitter and Instagram and whatever other virtual networking tools you can think of, and it’s poisoned her thought process about what it means to have a friendship. It all began when she was talking about some “friends” and something they had said or done via that site. But when pressed, she had very little information about those people.
Her entire interaction was based on whatever was posted, then filtered by site algorithms and delivered to her news feed. In essence it was a version of a version of the truth, selectively staged and delivered. She didn’t even bother to take steps to obtain more information before rendering her stance on whatever situation she was ruffled over, because, as she later admitted, she never actually talks to these people. There’s no correspondence, no interaction. How is this friendship? How are these people even the most casual of acquaintances to her? I was actually a little unsettled by this, and I’m still processing the implications of it. In my head I thought–it’s like watching total strangers in public and being upset by what they do or say without even introducing yourself.
Are we becoming a culture of disconnected Observers and Overhearers? Which, if we called it for what it was, wouldn’t be as distressing. But we’re not. We call these strangers “friends” and some part of us believes that that’s what a friend is. This is not to say that you can’t maintain an actual friendship with individuals through social media, but it does require that you talk to them in some way. I suppose the fact that she actually talks to me at all–sketchy and infrequent as our conversations are–is a huge deal. If she actually gave each of her more than 2,000 “friends” equivalent interaction, she’d have time for nothing else–no sleeping, eating, working, studying, playing with pets, or dealing with actual human beings on the physical plain.
A Filter, A Stage, or a Reflection?
How we use these social media sites to represent ourselves is a varied and diverse undertaking, and subject to all our individual quirks of personality. With some people, Facebook and Instagram or Twitter are stages for presenting an idealized version of themselves or their lives. For others, it seems to be a way to interact with the world with controlled filters in place. For me, I think it’s a little of the latter, but it’s also a reflection of how I interact with other human beings. I share what I want to be known. What I keep to myself, you’ll never even know it’s a thing, because I won’t mention it.
This, too, forms a part of my unease, because I know for a fact that among my acquaintances and actual friends there are those who suffer the tortures of the damned, but whose profiles are all sunshine and flowers, inspirational quotes and happy “selfies.” I’m not saying that this should or should not be done. But it informs my discomfort. We base our perceptions of people on these selective representations. We know that in some cases, these are false, and it colors our interactions in the physical world in ways I’m not even remotely prepared to explore.
For these reasons, I’m very careful about using the term “friend.” I like “acquaintance.” It applies to most of the people I know. With them, I’m willing to show interest, engage in conversations, and even devote a fair amount of time and energy to help or entertain them, whether I know them in the virtual sphere or the physical world. That comes with the understanding that if I don’t feel inclined to engage with them, I won’t. I’ll only drop what I’m doing for you if I’ve told you that I see you as a Friend, and even when that’s a spoken phrase, you hear the capital “F.” I find it insulting when someone calls me their friend and they actually don’t even merit more than a casual acquaintanceship from me. Are your standards so low, so diluted or skewed that you think this minimal interaction and impersonal investment merits such a title?
The Brain and its Capacity for Intimacy
That’s not to say that acquaintances don’t become friends. I think of that as kind of a given. Sometimes it takes years to develop an actual friendship, and other times intimacy is a swift process. But I won’t accept what doesn’t feel real or substantial. Counterfeit, no matter how convincing in the moment, will never do. I’ve always been a bit like this–demanding quality over quantity. I have developed friendships with people I’ve never met, and, for all they’re virtual interactions, contain a satisfying solidity that is often lacking in many real-world vague acquaintanceships.
I will admit that my particular educational path has influenced how I think about this subject. Anthropology generally has that effect. We are capable, in general, of being intimately familiar with about 50 people. The threshold for general interaction, recognition, and memory retention of facts about individuals tends to hover around 200. This also seems to be more a physiological limitation, rather than a cultural or psychological one. That’s why I think people who believe they have 2,000 friends, or can even maintain any sort of interaction with half that many on a shallower level are delusional. I don’t care how special or social you think you are–you’re full of shit if you believe that. Moreover, if you call me “friend” and haven’t backed up that word with some serious emotional investment…I’m going to correct you, and it will probably hurt your feelings. But it really has less to do with you and more to do with me.
When I call someone “friend,” I see that as a commitment on my part to expend emotional, physical, and temporal resources for their well-being. I may even intercede, earn a name for being a nosy bitch, and step on some toes–with a steamroller–but I do so, because that’s part of what the social contract of friendship demands. It’s not about saving face or keeping in the good graces of people I don’t know or care about. Friendship, for me personally, is a second tier of kinship ties and one that is chosen, so it matters even more in some ways than that of blood relations.
If I don’t choose to form a friendship with you, don’t take it too personally. You may be rather relieved, once you understand what it may eventually entail–me being in your business and telling you exactly what I think without a filter. I don’t do casual friendships…I call those nice people acquaintances. We have good fun together if we hang out or I may even lend my time and attention if they need to talk about something troubling them. But we aren’t friends, at least not yet.
Yes, I’m antiquated. I believe in fidelity and substantial interaction. I find this shallow, fickle definition of friendship that has sprung up in the last decade rather unsavoury. As a consequence, I’m a bit more restrictive and severe in my definitions. You may even think that there’s some magical line to step over. No, I’m not under the impression that when I become friends with someone they will automatically want to share their deepest soul with me, nor would I believe the reverse. Intimacy grows and blossoms in its own way, just as it ever did. Perhaps this restrictive delineation is simply the result of having to explain too many times that I’m not someone’s friend just because we had a few good laughs or agree on a political stance. I also see too often this tossing about of the term as a hungriness in people. They desperately want interactions with substance, but they’ve forgotten what it looks like. Maybe they never knew.