Friendship by the Numbers?

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols said in a recent interview with the Telegraph that he is concerned about the impact websites like Facebook and Myspace are having on teenagers.  Though I am generally suspicious of generalizations made about “kids these days,” and suspect the problems he points to can be tracked to other causes, one point he made struck me as important:
“He warned that the sites are contributing to a trend for teenagers to put too much importance on the number of friends they have.”*
I am persuaded by folks like Marshall McLuhan who argue that different media enhance certain means and styles of our perception, while downplaying others. In the case of social networking, I think it’s possible that the form of the medium motivates us to want to accumulate friendships instead of deepen them.  On the other hand, social media have enabled me to sustain and maintain friendships over time that I might have lost because of distance or time otherwise.

My experience with social media is the opposite of another of Archbishop Nichols’ concerns: that it leads to transient friendships.  I think being a fickle teenager who has fickle teenage friends leads to transient relationships, though the constant availability of social media might intensify the experience.  In my experience, social media have allowed me to take relationships that might have been transient – a conversation at a conference, or in the church narthex, or at a friend’s party – and turn it into a friendship.  Of course, for each real friendship I have gained this way, I have also racked up a few more tally-marks on my friend count who I never really engage with again.

This leads to one question I have about this issue: is this an acceptable trade-off? Are the friendship-enhancing functions of social media worth the risk of taking time and meaning away from deeper, face to face friendships?

I was more firm in my dismissal of this concern before I read this story in the New York Times last fall. The columnist decided to invite all of his 700 Facebook friends to meet up with him at a local bar, and only one person came.  I think about that sometimes too, like when I was sick with the flu, and had a pretty short list of local people who I felt I could ask to go pick me up some Gatorade.

Ultimately, I think as long as we use our internet friendship as a supplement to real relationships, where we get to know people and show God’s love to them, it can be a useful tool. But we should be cautious about seeing our value as people linked to that friend-count number. It’s a more consumerist version of an old obsession with popularity, to be sure, but thinking of your friends as a commodity to be displayed is at least shallow and unhealthy, and doesn’t invite the self-giving love of others that Jesus demonstrated. Are there ways we can combat thinking about relationships as commodities, and promote a more Christ-like example? Can we do them online?

*I have strategically truncated this quotation to leave out a more controversial, and I think overstated, claim that this leads to teen suicide.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, News & Politics, Social Trends