Facebook as a piece of technology is amazing. As a site that purports to be a social utility that connects you with the people around you, it does just that. It is the ability to fulfill this purpose well that, to me, makes Facebook bad for friendships.
Firstly, weak ties have a place in society. Mark Granovetter in his book “The Strength of Weak Ties” explains how weak ties help spread information to individuals that are not accessible via strong ties.
The problem to me is that while Facebook becomes an effective tool to manage those connections with people that are weak ties, it also creates the danger of making more ties weak.
Take for example birthday wishes. It used to be that the only way to wish a person ‘Happy Birthday’ was to be physically with a person. Then there was mail, so now cards could be sent. Then there was the telephone, so a call just needed to be made. Then there was email. Then there was sms. It became progressively easier to show ‘we care’ as long as we made the effort to remember. Now, even the effort to remember is not needed as Facebook does it for you. Someone left a comment on an earlier post that seemed to indicate that the lessening of effort needed somehow results in the decrease in sincerity. I’m not sure if this is always the case. The message may be of a medium that is easier to use but that does not always make the message less sincere although it can be argued that the medium used is the message.
Granted then that using a medium that takes little effort on your part to communicate with your friends may not always be indicative of a lack of sincerity, how would Facebook be bad for friendships?
Before I go further, I would like to assert that the use of the word ‘friend’ to describe everyone on your social network by sites like Facebook increasingly blurs the distinction between what is an acquaintance and friend to generations that grew up with the Internet. I would like then to make another assertion – that such a distinction is actually important for the proper functioning of society and we are all worse off with the lost of that distinction.
The reason why Facebook is bad for friendships is the use of apps like ‘SuperPoke!’ and ‘Gifts’. ‘SuperPoke!’ is an application that allows you to specify ‘actions to be taken against a friend’. ‘Gifts’ allows you to give a virtual present to a friend which will result in an image representing the gift appearing on the friend’s profile. These applications allow you to do something to show the friend that you are aware of that individual in your online social network if not your life as well as a reminder to that friend that you are still around (i.e. keeping yourself in view). It is as much about the giver as it is about the given.
The problem of the use of such applications is that friendship becomes mediated by a form of media. When I was in Primary School, my friends were classmates and people that I played with after school. We were friends because we were being friends. We did stuff that friends did together. We stood by each other. We encouraged each other when exams came up…
When Friendster popularized online social networks, friends became a collector’s item. Granted that there were always those sort of people who just had to or seemed to know everyone and kept count in that ‘blackbook’, collecting friends became something everyone engaged in naturally by the use of online social networks. While not everyone took it to the extreme like those who seem to max out the number of friends they can have on an account, online social networks brought the concept of ‘having friends’ to the foreground of our consciousness.
Now, with Facebook and similar applications, we have reached a stage where it isn’t just about ‘having friends’ but ‘appearing to be friends’ not just to ourselves but to others in the network. Such applications then work against us. They reduce what could have possibly grown to strong ties to weak ties because little effort is made beyond connecting over applications like Facebook – it is just that easy. The sadder thing would be if existing friendships become reduced because instead of making the effort to meet up and really talk and spend time together, we put that off because being able to connect over Facebook deceives us by making us feel that the existing state of the friendship is healthy and that amount of interaction is sufficient.
Of course, it would probably not be superfluous to point out that I’m using a Timex definition of friendship in a digital age.
Friendship is being redefined by how we use technology. The question then is this – is that a good thing?