is always trendy among the high-brow set to decry whatever
is trendy in the mass population and assume it augurs the
decline of all that is right and good about society. I feel
that way myself about plenty of trends. But I feel compelled
to come to at least a partial defense of online social networking,
as the latest popular subject of despair, particularly an
overwrought article called “Faux Friendship” that appeared
in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Its author, William Deresiewicz, wistfully longs for the days
when marriages were economic transactions and so men, at least,
formed platonic soul mate bonds of friendship that make today’s
notions of friendship seem worthless, surface, and fickle.
In this old-style friendship, he says, friends challenged
each other and called each other out rather than today’s habits
of affirming each other’s self esteem and avoiding conflict.
And then there’s the horror of social networking, where confessional
memes cheapen the idea of intimacy, status updates turn us
into constant self-branding machines, and the meaning of “friendship”
has been soiled forever. We have abandoned friendship in favor
I think he’s confused the two. It seems clear to me that in
our society at least, the role of the sorts of friendships
he mourns has often been taken over by companionate marriage/partnership.
Sure, it looks somewhat different when sex and cohabitation
and co-parenting are mixed with it. Sure, many of us could
use to pay more attention to tending a few close, trusting
friendships outside of our marriages as well. Sure, many marriages
don’t function that way. But nonetheless, the singular bond
he speaks of hasn’t disappeared; it’s morphed.
But even more, I think Deresiewicz has mistaken what people
are using sites like Facebook for. Despite the annoying co-option
of the term “friend,” which grates on me too, it’s not about
friendships. It’s about networks. And despite his derisive
dismissal of “networking” as a thing that social climbers
and ambitious employees do, actually it’s a vital and ancient
activity. The relationships formed in religious communities,
fraternal orders, sports teams, affinity groups (and yes,
workplaces and extended social circles)—these are the sorts
of things social networking mimics. Acquaintances if you will.
Sociologists call the relationships in groups like this “weak
ties.” And they note that when it comes to measuring a person’s
“social capital,” lots of weak ties are as useful (for different
things) as a few strong ties. Strong ties let you cry on their
shoulder, keep your secrets, and call you out when needed.
Weak ties pass you job leads, photocopy your poem for their
class, bake a casserole when your grandmother passes away.
I’ve witnessed this myself recently, as my family has had
occasion to need a lot of help with things over a short period
of time in a couple cases. In one instance, in order to be
able to take in some family, we transformed our downstairs
apartment from a filthy DIY window repair workshop to both
habitable and fully furnished over the course of four days
with the help of over 20 different people. Many of those people
would not have come near passing Deresiewicz’s standards of
“friend.” Several of them would, but in this case that was
kind of irrelevant—that closeness didn’t put them in a position
to be able to provide all the help we needed, or even necessarily
more than others. But together, they constituted a network
of overlapping communities that performed a near miracle.
Similarly, I’ve seen social networking sites used to greatly
ease the creation of post-birth meal lists for families, an
unmitigated good thing in my book. Do you need to peer into
the depths of someone’s soul to cook them a meal when they
have a newborn? No. Though you may discover a new close friendship
if by doing that you overcome some of the pervasive isolation
that is the creation of ever longer work hours, spread out
development, nuclear families, and a reliance on cars much
more than of some evil computerized perversion of friendship.
I’m under no illusion that a Facebook/LiveJournal/LinkedIn
“friend” is the same as a real close friend. I’d wager you’re
not either. Of course, I’m happier and more balanced when
I don’t let myself lose every evening on the computer checking
status updates. There are many treacherous waters to be navigated
in search of balance in our relationships in an ever more
connected world. But fretting that having a wide and varied
network of connections is going to supplant real friendships
seems to me to verge on the hysterical. I think it’s time
that would be better spent taking a long rambling walk with