Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Facebook and Friendship

I can’t say I agree with everything in this piece about friendship and its coarsening by Facebook, but many of the points are undeniably true. There is something terribly reductive about reducing meaningful conversation and interaction to self-conscious, bite-sized wall posts sprinkled about for the consumption of our “friends.” Likewise the enormity of people’s friends lists and the reality that they do not interact with the majority of the people on them on an even semi-regular basis.

Yet I am loath to cede an argument to doomsayers, mostly because doomsayers have been criticizing the zeitgeist since time immemorial. I’m sure many bemoaned the death of meaningful communication with the invention of the telegraph and the development of the "Victorian Internet". Most such nattering nabobs will paint today as a debasement of the past without acknowledging how selective our memories can be. Deresiewicz sidesteps this by acknowledging Facebook’s definite plusses, namely that one can get in touch with people they haven’t seen or spoken to in years, but holds his ground, insisting that the lack of real facetime diminishes such contact to passive absorption of contextless content.

Fair enough, but the problem with the argument is the standard to which Deresiewicz holds modern friendships. He starts in classical times with mythological and biblical figures, not even real people whom we can hope to emulate. He then mentions Cicero and Aristotle, and moves on to the Renaissance and writers like Montaigne and on up through Emmerson and Thoreau and the like. The problem with this approach is one of apples and oranges. Cicero and Montaigne and Thoreau spent great deals of time reflecting on the subject of friendship, and many others besides; the laymen of their respective times, not so much. It is those everyman to whom we ought compare. Deresiewicz mentions the economic nature of friendship in pre-capitalist times, but outside of literature and men of letters, there’s not much in the way of specifics. I find it very hard to believe that people of any caste then would not find occasion to bond with their peers and particularly closely with a select few, as is the case now.

I treasure the time I get to spend with friends, especially because—ever since graduation—I see them irregularly and have to travel some distance to do so. I have long conversations with a select handful when I can, sometimes over the phone, sometimes even by way of Facebook’s chat apparatus. My relationship with many/most Facebook friends is peripheral, but how is this any different from real life? We have friends we talk to and spend with time everyday, and there are acquaintances and associates we’ll greet with a nod but otherwise have little interaction with. If we wanted to be accurate about friends and associates we would break that unwieldy list down into a hierarchy of relationships, but the relentlessly upbeat (no dislike button) nature of Facebook discourages such value judgments . There is, I believe, some kind of “Best Friends” app that weighs the intensity of your friendships based on who you exchange posts with the most, but I’m not sure whether such metrics would prove or disprove Deresiewicz’ thesis.

I guess my point in all this rambling is that while some of the “exhibitionism” and mindless posts on Facebook are regrettable, a lot of them I don’t see as being much different than waving to somebody as you pass them in the car. My own experience is that Facebook adds another way of interacting with the people you know, particularly the ones you can’t see on an everyday basis. My day-to-day interactions, physical distance aside, remain unchanged. Whether the next generation, which has had access to this technology for most of their short conscious lives, will be as dependent on it as Deresiewicz fears is a real concern, but for now I think most of us are fine, and the people who broadcast their every interaction across the internet would probably have done it in real life anyway. Give me an online spectacle over one in real life; at least I have the option of ignoring the former.

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