Monday, November 1, 2010

Friendship in the 21st century

According to a definition I recently found through Wikipedia (the source all misinformation, say some), "Friendship" can be traditionally defined as having the following common characteristics:
  • sympathy and empathy
  • honesty
  • mutual understanding and compassion
  • trust in one another
  • equal give and take
It´s commonly said by people these days (especially users of social networking sites) that they feel disconnected from others due to technology. What they mean, I guess, is that technology depersonalises all social interactions: people no longer have "friendships"; they have "networks", "colleagues", "acquaintances", and so on.
This is the ultimate irony of social interaction in the 21st century: anyone you "know" can be your "friend". I think it´s hilarious that, through Facebook, a complete stranger can see your photo then ask to be your "friend". The real-life equivalent would be a complete stranger walking up to you on the street and asking the same question. In other words, social networking, and the "distance" that technology creates, allows people to behave in a way that they would never consider in real life. The same for Twitter: people write things (insults in particular) on there that they would never tell somebody in the flesh - or not if they didn´t expect to get a good beating afterwards!
The nature of social networking is by nature schizophrenic: having more than a hundred "friends" is unrealistic in the real world; you would never have time to see them all enough to have "quality" relationships. So this means "relationships" become sanitised to the point of being cosmetic adornments. I think anyone who uses social networking on a regular basis can identify with this point.
What does this mean for real "friendship" then? Going back to the points listed at the beginning, there was a time before "social networking "existed when people had a number of close friends that they kept in regular touch with. These were not necessarily colleagues (usually they may have been school friends or neighbourhood friends). "Social networking" is a useful tool; but it should not be confused with physical "contact" friendship.
There are the other, more obvious, reasons why the traditional idea of "friendship" is dying a slow death, and it´s not because of social networking. Facebook and other networks are symptom of the social disconnect, not a cause of it.
The cause is the changing nature of society; through increased work hours; through increased demand for worker flexibility and movement; and so on. Friendships are no longer the result of years of bonding as they were before; they are "products", "connections", whatever buzz word you choose to call it. But having a "connection" to somebody is not the same as a real "relationship". The trap is thinking that they are the same thing.
This is due to lack of time due to the contraits of modern living; an intellectual way of saying that we longer have time for each other that we did before (i.e. before the 21st century). I can cite many personal examples of this; we all can, I'm sure. Like in my earlier posting about "Progress", the real meaning of "friendship" is becoming lost in the age of Facebook, Twitter and the like. These networking sites have become substitutes for the "real" friendships we have all lost due to the sheer pace of life. Am I as guilty as anyone of this? Of course. The face that I am sharing this with people through networking is a sign of that disconnection. But I am not judging; just observing.
Humanity is caught in the middle of all this: everything is in flux, and the the connections between people become all the more confused and fragmented. Society as a whole sees itself as a mass of lost individuals. No wonder, then, that we don´t know where this is leading.

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