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The meaning of friendship, on- and offline

by Alex in | | | | | |

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This weekend was the first time I found myself on the receiving end of Facebook’s new and  more nuanced privacy settings. An old friend popped up in the Facebook sidebar, which rotates an assortment of different people in your friend list. On a whim, I clicked her picture, so I could catch up on her latest news.

Instead I found myself staring at a virtually blank screen showing only her minimal info: clearly, she’d put me on a list of friends who would only have access to her limited profile. I’d been demoted from friend to “friend”™.

This reminded me of an assignment I’d received in my ninth-grade Latin class, when I had to translate the following story:

A son brags to his father about all the friends he has, only to meet with skepticism. “You call these people are your friends,” the father says. “Let’s see if you’re right. Slaughter a goat, and put it in a sack. Then go to the house of one of your friends. Tell him you have killed a man, and you need his help disposing of the body.”

The son does as his father says, and arrives at the house of his first friend. He presents his bloody sack, and asks his friend to help him dispose of the (supposedly human) remains. The friend is horrified and sends him away.

The son repeats the scene at the home of his next friend, who also refuses to help. The son visits friend after friend, but none are willing to help him conceal his crime.

Finally he returns to his father, defeated, and explains that all of his friends have turned him away.

“I have only one friend,” the father says. “Go to his house, and explain that you are my son. Show him the sack, and ask if he will help you.”

Once again, the son does as his father says. This time, the father’s friend – a true friend – immediately offers his assistance in burying the evidence of the son’s supposed crime.

I can’t remember the Latin translation, but the lesson stuck with me: there’s a big difference between “friends” and friends.

You can take a few lessons from this story yourself: the futility of making your kids take Latin. The importance of actually looking inside any blood-covered sack before disposing of it.  The opportunity for a hit Facebook application called “Goat Bag”.

I won’t define friendship as the willingness to conspire in covering up a homicide, but there is undoubtedly a difference between friendship as it was classically understood and the click-here-to-accept notion of friendship that has become commonplace online.

Simply using the word “friend” to describe a network-to-network connection effectively cheapens the notion of friendship. And if you’ve heard those implicit air quotes in the way people sometimes use the word friend to describe a social network connection, you know how quickly the currency of friendship is getting devalued.

There’s a simple solution — one you see on a variety of networks. Instead of using the term friend — a term that should have real meaning and value — networks can use words like buddy, connection, or contact.

Meanwhile, it’s up to us users to remember what real friendship involves: Genuine conversation (not mutual monitoring of status updates). Trust (not just putting someone on a “trusted contacts” list). Providing support (and not just of the tech variety).

We all know what the word friend can mean — and what it means to have real friends in our lives. Let’s not get confused by the online appropriation of the word “friend” to describe whoever happens to be at the other end of a T1 line.

First posted on January 19,2010
  • http://netchick.net Tanya (aka NetChick)

    Great points! I’ve often considered Facebook’s “friend” list a misnomer. And, since when did it become a popularity contest? I’d rather have one good true friend, than 800 people who barely know my name.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post :)

  • http://netchick.net Tanya (aka NetChick)

    Great points! I’ve often considered Facebook’s “friend” list a misnomer. And, since when did it become a popularity contest? I’d rather have one good true friend, than 800 people who barely know my name.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post :)

  • http://www.englishtoitaliantranslation.net Sam

    It seems like a small thing, but I absolutely agree. I think facebook has certainly cheapened the idea of friendship by using “friend” as a term instead of giving it the full meaning it deserves. Cheers.

  • http://www.englishtoitaliantranslation.net Sam

    It seems like a small thing, but I absolutely agree. I think facebook has certainly cheapened the idea of friendship by using “friend” as a term instead of giving it the full meaning it deserves. Cheers.

  • Charles

    Many of my students “friend” me on Facebook, and I have to wonder what they think will come of it. Since my family posts pictures of my youth, I tend to limit the access of my information to people I have had a conversation with at one point or another — but many of my students do not do so. Once, after having accidentally seeing a picture of a student I am sure she would not have wanted me to see, I stopped automatically “friending” people who “friended” me. There are many things I just don’t want to know.

    Including how to butcher a goat.

  • Charles

    Many of my students “friend” me on Facebook, and I have to wonder what they think will come of it. Since my family posts pictures of my youth, I tend to limit the access of my information to people I have had a conversation with at one point or another — but many of my students do not do so. Once, after having accidentally seeing a picture of a student I am sure she would not have wanted me to see, I stopped automatically “friending” people who “friended” me. There are many things I just don’t want to know.

    Including how to butcher a goat.

  • Tiago Sousa Gomes

    “Instead I found myself staring at a virtually blank screen showing only her minimal info: clearly, she’d put me on a list of friends who would only have access to her limited profile. I’d been demoted from friend to “friend”™”

    You got it all wrong!
    Thats just because of the privacy settings for everyone, not just for you…

    Regards
    Tiago

  • Tiago Sousa Gomes

    “Instead I found myself staring at a virtually blank screen showing only her minimal info: clearly, she’d put me on a list of friends who would only have access to her limited profile. I’d been demoted from friend to “friend”™”

    You got it all wrong!
    Thats just because of the privacy settings for everyone, not just for you…

    Regards
    Tiago

  • http://www.alexandrasamuel.com Alex

    Tanya, I’m so glad you highlighted the popularity contest issue, because I think you’re right — the dynamic that cheapens the notion of friendship is all the folks “friending” each other just to increase the number of friends that shows up in their profile.

    Sam, glad to hear you also enjoyed the piece.

    Charles, it’s lovely to hear from you — and you’re an example of what is GREAT about Facebook, namely the way it can keep us in touch with friends from previous lives. The student/teacher dynamic is something I hear about from a lot of educators; I’ve heard teachers talk about their concern for feeling liable (legally or morally) if a student posts info on their FB page that (possibly inadvertently) lets a teacher know about problem behaviour: for example if a student is drinking or posting suicidal thoughts, should the teacher report it to the student’s parents? No wonder so many teachers have a blanket rule against friending students.

    Tiago, you’re right that I may be unduly paranoid — perhaps the friend in question had changed her profile settings for all friends. But Facebook does let you customize your privacy settings for different groups and individuals. Here’s how:
    1. Choose “friends” from the main nav menu and choose “create new list”. Give it a name (e.g. “closest pals”) and assign the people you want to share ALL your info with.
    2. Go to settings and choose any section of your profile that you’d like to make visible only to your closest friends (e.g. “Family and Relationship”).
    3. Click the dropdown menu to the right of your selection profile section (here, “Family and Relationship”) and choose “Customize”.
    4. Click “specific people” and enter the name of your list (“closest pals”). Now only “closest pals” will see your Family & Relationship info.

    Since there isn’t a “nobody” option on the dropdown list, my friend must have used this customize option to select specific friends or lists who would have access to her profile fields, and she clearly left me off it.

    In other words, people, feel free to slight me, but know that I will be documenting the how-to process for future reference.

  • http://www.alexandrasamuel.com Alex

    Tanya, I’m so glad you highlighted the popularity contest issue, because I think you’re right — the dynamic that cheapens the notion of friendship is all the folks “friending” each other just to increase the number of friends that shows up in their profile.

    Sam, glad to hear you also enjoyed the piece.

    Charles, it’s lovely to hear from you — and you’re an example of what is GREAT about Facebook, namely the way it can keep us in touch with friends from previous lives. The student/teacher dynamic is something I hear about from a lot of educators; I’ve heard teachers talk about their concern for feeling liable (legally or morally) if a student posts info on their FB page that (possibly inadvertently) lets a teacher know about problem behaviour: for example if a student is drinking or posting suicidal thoughts, should the teacher report it to the student’s parents? No wonder so many teachers have a blanket rule against friending students.

    Tiago, you’re right that I may be unduly paranoid — perhaps the friend in question had changed her profile settings for all friends. But Facebook does let you customize your privacy settings for different groups and individuals. Here’s how:
    1. Choose “friends” from the main nav menu and choose “create new list”. Give it a name (e.g. “closest pals”) and assign the people you want to share ALL your info with.
    2. Go to settings and choose any section of your profile that you’d like to make visible only to your closest friends (e.g. “Family and Relationship”).
    3. Click the dropdown menu to the right of your selection profile section (here, “Family and Relationship”) and choose “Customize”.
    4. Click “specific people” and enter the name of your list (“closest pals”). Now only “closest pals” will see your Family & Relationship info.

    Since there isn’t a “nobody” option on the dropdown list, my friend must have used this customize option to select specific friends or lists who would have access to her profile fields, and she clearly left me off it.

    In other words, people, feel free to slight me, but know that I will be documenting the how-to process for future reference.

  • http://hummingbird604.com Raul

    Alex, you hit the nail in the head. I have only “friended” people on Facebook who are my actual real friends. I can look at the list of my 449 facebook friends and be fully aware that I know EACH and every one of them. That at least I have had a beer with one of them on at least one occasion (or any other drink, like coffee, tea or martinis).

    I have a very important person in my life, and he has the really bad tendency to call people “friend” even if they see each other once every six months to have coffee. That, to me, isn’t friendship. That’s an acquaintance. The irresponsible combined misuse of language (the word “friend”) in social networking sites has led to the erosion of the meaning and value of real connections. I consider you a friend, so much so that I feel free to go running to you to ask for advice when I see myself stuck.

    To me, friendship means much more. And I truly value my friendship with you (and with Rob, on a side note as well!)

    Much love,
    R.

  • http://hummingbird604.com Raul

    Alex, you hit the nail in the head. I have only “friended” people on Facebook who are my actual real friends. I can look at the list of my 449 facebook friends and be fully aware that I know EACH and every one of them. That at least I have had a beer with one of them on at least one occasion (or any other drink, like coffee, tea or martinis).

    I have a very important person in my life, and he has the really bad tendency to call people “friend” even if they see each other once every six months to have coffee. That, to me, isn’t friendship. That’s an acquaintance. The irresponsible combined misuse of language (the word “friend”) in social networking sites has led to the erosion of the meaning and value of real connections. I consider you a friend, so much so that I feel free to go running to you to ask for advice when I see myself stuck.

    To me, friendship means much more. And I truly value my friendship with you (and with Rob, on a side note as well!)

    Much love,
    R.

  • http://mommarobbins.wordpress.com Jen Robbins

    I could go on forever about Facebook. In mid-2007, relatively early FB days, I checked out one of our student intern applicant’s Facebook page. It was completely open, like I find many younger kids’ are. A few weeks in and I friend-requested him. He accepted, but put me on limited profile. So I could see more *before* we became “friends” than after! Personally I do know the difference between “friends” and friends. I do tend to friend people early on, after all, I use Facebook as my primary communication tool. We’re so busy these days, it’s easier to ask “are you on Facebook” than remember someone’s name AND their e-mail address.

  • http://mommarobbins.wordpress.com Jen Robbins

    I could go on forever about Facebook. In mid-2007, relatively early FB days, I checked out one of our student intern applicant’s Facebook page. It was completely open, like I find many younger kids’ are. A few weeks in and I friend-requested him. He accepted, but put me on limited profile. So I could see more *before* we became “friends” than after! Personally I do know the difference between “friends” and friends. I do tend to friend people early on, after all, I use Facebook as my primary communication tool. We’re so busy these days, it’s easier to ask “are you on Facebook” than remember someone’s name AND their e-mail address.

  • Brian

    I recently lost a pet in very shocking and traumatic manner that caused me a great deal of grief. I made a FB post expressing my deep sadness and expected a great deal of support from my FB friends. Instead, I got comments from a mere two people sending their condolences. I was pretty surprised by the lack of support.

    I realize that not everyone checks FB everday and that I probably check it more often than most, but still, I expected more. It made me wonder what would happen if I wrote something to the effect of “I was diagnosed with cancer.” or “I want to kill myself.” How many of my so-called FB “friends” would actually read such a comment? How many of my friends Hide me from their newsfeed and don’t actually see my updates at all unless they visit my page directly? And if such a shockling revelation would be completely missed by a large number of my so-called “friends,” why bother?

    SO the whole incident got me thinking about the meaning of the word “friend” on and off FB, and that led me to your page. I like the story you wrote abotu from latin class, as I think that really nails the issue. My real friends call me, they support me, they see me in real life, but that’s just a small number of people on my Friends list. The rest are better described as contacts… people I’ve met who I might have a passing interest in keeping ties with, such as friends of friends, classmates, and club members. I suppose if they were called FB Contacts, I wouldn’t be so troubled as much. But calling them “friends” seems like a real stretch of the word that really cheapens the whole notion of what it means to be a friend.

  • Brian

    I recently lost a pet in very shocking and traumatic manner that caused me a great deal of grief. I made a FB post expressing my deep sadness and expected a great deal of support from my FB friends. Instead, I got comments from a mere two people sending their condolences. I was pretty surprised by the lack of support.

    I realize that not everyone checks FB everday and that I probably check it more often than most, but still, I expected more. It made me wonder what would happen if I wrote something to the effect of “I was diagnosed with cancer.” or “I want to kill myself.” How many of my so-called FB “friends” would actually read such a comment? How many of my friends Hide me from their newsfeed and don’t actually see my updates at all unless they visit my page directly? And if such a shockling revelation would be completely missed by a large number of my so-called “friends,” why bother?

    SO the whole incident got me thinking about the meaning of the word “friend” on and off FB, and that led me to your page. I like the story you wrote abotu from latin class, as I think that really nails the issue. My real friends call me, they support me, they see me in real life, but that’s just a small number of people on my Friends list. The rest are better described as contacts… people I’ve met who I might have a passing interest in keeping ties with, such as friends of friends, classmates, and club members. I suppose if they were called FB Contacts, I wouldn’t be so troubled as much. But calling them “friends” seems like a real stretch of the word that really cheapens the whole notion of what it means to be a friend.

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