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Friends and “Friends”

It 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 of networking.

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 a friend.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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