Friends, Friendship And The Internet



Young friends build sand castles together.

This is what friendship used to look like. It was messy and real.


I’ve been thinking about friendship of late. Friends are an important part of life. Friends lend me support when I need it. They bounce ideas off me. They present me with different views than my own, which challenges some of my basic assumptions on life. They help me pass time. When I need comfort or a friendly ear to hear my complaints they let me speak. They give me a reason to look forward to a certain day or event because I know we’ll be spending time together. In short, friends make life worth living. Or at least, that’s the way the world looked before Facebook…


JB Likes Duckbook is an original Adventures of Javabird comic.

Click to expand this comic. Use the browser button to come back.

Before Facebook, the concept of friendship implied spending a certain amount of actual in-person “face time” together. Now, it seems we include our “real” face-time buddies with a horde of others we label as friends. These include casual acquaintances from the past or present, high school classmates we haven’t seen nor heard from in years, friends of friends, friends of the acquaintances of friends, random souls who hold the same views we do, distantly related cousins twice or thrice removed, our kids, our kids friends, our pets and, well, just about anyone if the truth be told.


Under the circumstances, I don’t know why it shocked me when my son proudly boasted of “axing 20 of his Facebook friends” the other day. Why not? Why keep anyone around that might displease when the whole concept of friendship is so common and cheap?


If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m unhappy with Facebook’s concept of friendship. Now, it’s true I don’t have to invite anyone to be my friend or I can make my friend’s list as selective as I wish. I can also adjust my settings and decide which of my Facebook friends are closest and which are acquaintances and post accordingly. So, yes, Facebook has given me options to control my online experience.


My issue comes as I go to seek more meaningful relationships in life—especially meaningful friendships. You see, the sad fact of the internet is though it presents an illusion we can all communicate with ease, it’s all just that—an illusion.


A basic model of communication presented graphically.

Communication is supposed to work something like this. There’s a person speaking, one listening and a means to transmit the message.


The drawing above is the basic model for communication. We start with a speaker (a person), a means by which communication is transmitted back and forth and a receiver (another person). In the case where we talk in person with someone face-to-face this model generally works well.


On Facebook (and we really don’t mean to imply Facebook is unique) a number of interesting things start happening that interfere with the model.


I'm going shopping with a friend.

Real friendship looks more like this: Spending quality time together.

For one, on Facebook (or any of its internet cousins), our speaker is presented as a real person, but due to the nature of the internet and various concerns for privacy, he or she invariably takes on a certain level of anonymity. That means that if you or I were to meet this virtual person in real life, our picture of them is bound to look substantially different than the one we see posted online. For example, though our friend, Betty, never talks about religion with us in person she tends to spout off like Old Faithful on Facebook.


Secondly, the means to accomplish the transmission of messages is varied and that can slow or even interrupt the process of communicating. What do we mean by varied? Our friends may post a comment, text us, email us, etc. In the worst case, the friend we hope is on the receiving end of our message fails to get it at all. This is can happen if they only choose to go online occasionally, they limit which of our messages get through, or if they have so many friends who post messages ours ends up on the bottom of the pile.



Finally, there’s just no guarantee a message will be received or acknowledged in a meaningful fashion. Of course, we’re all familiar with Facebook’s “like” button, but have you ever wondered why they haven’t given us a “dislike” button? Seriously, wouldn’t we all “dislike” about as many posts as we “like?” I know I would. The fact we can’t do that means our friends can easily misinterpret our response to their posts (or our lack thereof).


Something else important happens here, too: When we choose to “like” a friend’s post, we basically give them positive feedback. Interestingly, B.F. Skinner (the famous animal behaviorist) proved his theory that intermittent positive reinforcement is the most effective method to train animals. This means when we “like” a post every once in awhile we give our friends the most powerful message we can to keep on doing it—whether we wish they’d stop or not. I suspect the people running Facebook were well aware of this fact when they built it. They want us to keep using Facebook, because as long as we do they make money. And of course, since we are given no option to dislike posts the message we send back to our friends is fatally skewed toward the positive to begin with.


In a worst case, trying to communicate on Facebook might look like this.

Communication often fails for reasons we can’t anticipate.


Contrast this process if you will to meeting a friend face-to-face. Even when we dislike something they tell us and remain silent, chances are they may readily pick up on other clues we might offer. They might see us roll our eyes, sighing, frowning, yawning or pulling our hair. They may hear our laughter, hear us snort, guffaw, groan, etc. In other words, in a real life friendship the transmission process between friends is filtered by the human senses of sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing. As a result, it’s vastly superior to anything available on the internet—even a video call.


I want more real friends in my life.

The only way to get to know someone is experience the world around together. That’s just not possible on the internet.

On a related note, I have a close real friend who has constantly been disappointed by her online dating experience. The people she meets online have no reason to be completely open or honest. Several have presented themselves as single and available and have turned out to be married and unavailable. In addition, the key element of physical “chemistry” which is so important for any significant relationship to succeed is impossible to transmit across the internet. Thus, though a person can sound appealing from everything she reads or sees online, her real life experience (once she finally meets up) is a huge disappointment.


My friend’s experience is just another example of how the internet fails us. I see the world of the internet as great for disseminating certain types of information, but it’s still a poor substitute when it comes to interpersonal communication and relationships. For that, we need go back to our model, which suggests good communication requires all the components of what it means to be real and human and not just a select few of them.


Want real friends and friendship? Then maybe it’s time to log off, pick up the phone, and arrange a time to meet a real person face-to-face. I guarantee it’s bound to be more meaningful than anything you do roaming the virtual world.


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