Monday, December 07, 2009

"Friendship" Under Fire




image:: "Facebook" from The Cartoon Blog—Dave Walker
Crossposted on ThickCulture

Sometimes when I read The Chronicle, I think of the slang term "chronic", as quite a few of the articles/opinions are really hard to take, let alone take seriously. A recent offering by William Deresiewicz on "Faux Friendships" on Facebook struck me as a pining for an institution lost, akin to those decrying the demise of the institution of marriage.

My Best Simulacrum Forever

Many of you may find Deresiewicz's article to be an interesting read. He discusses friendship over time {I think he romanticises it quite a bit} and ponders its meaning in this current era of late capitalism. Alas, he feels friendships aren't what they used to be and Facebook isn't helping.
"With the social-networking sites of the new century—Friendster and MySpace were launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004—the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook's very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they're not in the same place, or, rather, they're not my friends. They're simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets."
Simulacra? Well, isn't that a consequence of being willy-nilly in friending, a promiscuity of sorts? Not to judge it, but if you choose to have hundreds of Facebook friends, shouldn't this be expected? He goes on to talk about how Facebook offers a "sense" of connection, as opposed to real connection. My "sense" is that this is a case of YMMV, i.e., your mileage may vary. Now, I'm not a huge Facebook user and my presence on it is inflated by posting my Twitter tweets to my wall. That said, yesterday, a Facebook friend posted on her wall that she would be hosting a table at a craft fair in The Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. I saw it and made it over there and had a chance to catch up and have a few drinks. My Facebook network tends to replicate my real connections and I tend not to "collect" second and higher order ties {friends-of-a-friend and so on} or very weak ties from my distant past. Perhaps I'm an anomaly, but my point is Facebook is what you make of it and the meaning is in the usage.

TMI and Verbal Vomitus

Are we sharing too much of the mundane? Deresiewicz thinks so::
"What purpose do all those wall posts and status updates serve? On the first beautiful weekend of spring this year, a friend posted this update from Central Park: "[So-and-so] is in the Park with the rest of the City." The first question that comes to mind is, if you're enjoying a beautiful day in the park, why don't you give your iPhone a rest? But the more important one is, why did you need to tell us that?"
It's been stated for a while that all of these Facebook status updates and Twitter tweets may seem like so much meaningless dross, but the sum of these paints can help to paint a picture of the everyday aspects of a person's life, affording an intimacy that would be hard to replicate without technology. A friend of mine in California said that SMS texting has brought his family closer together with just mundane <140 character texts.

The Transparency of Everyday Life

I have done blog posts on public political figures getting into hot water for content posted on Facebook, with the latest instalment here. If privacy is dead on the Internet, is a corollary to this that our lives are now fairly transparent? While we have a certain degree of control over what people see of our lives with social media, there's a lot out of our control. Fake personas and being "tagged" in a Facebook photo in an unflattering way are examples of what's out of our control, but I think there's a perceptual shift taking place where people are growing accustomed to "oversharing" and its fallout. Deresiewicz is concerned by the private going public::
"The most disturbing thing about Facebook is the extent to which people are willing—are eager—to conduct their private lives in public. "hola cutie-pie! i'm in town on wednesday. lunch?" "Julie, I'm so glad we're back in touch. xoxox." "Sorry for not calling, am going through a tough time right now." Have these people forgotten how to use e-mail, or do they actually prefer to stage the emotional equivalent of a public grope?"
I honestly feel that as time progresses, we will get desensitized to "oversharing" of private spheres in public, even at its most lurid. One day, something like a decades-old "sexting" photo will appear, involving a political candidate or public figure and there will be a collective yawn. Just like how adult content that would result in convictions in the 1980s are now bookmarked on browsers without batting an eye.

I don't think friendship is "dying," but transforming. Technology has the ability to transform the social and its institutions, i.e., social conventions. Are social media technologies like Facebook "falsifying" intimacy, as Deresiewicz claims? That's an interesting question. I do agree with Deresiewicz that there is a commodification going on, which has the power to alter meaning systems when it comes to concepts like intimacy. Along with commodification, I think there can be a tendency in technologically-mediated interactions to treat some {but not all} "relationships" as disposable. Rejection. This, perhaps, is the flipside to the immense potential of social media to connect people in ways which are impossible with just face-to-face communications. It can be a huge "catch and release" system for some.

I think the article taps into an uneasiness shared by many. Perhaps a dystopic fear that we are losing what makes us human. The "sex in the future" scene from Demolition Man {1993} also taps into fears of how technologically-mediated interpersonal interactions, albeit in an authoritarian regime with "big brother" overtones::



When this is possible, those who decry the demise of friendship with Facebook, well, their heads will explode.

Twitterversion:: Is #socialmedia & #Facebook killing institution #friendship? CHE art. discussed brings up food 4 thought. #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: Queen-"You're My Best Friend"



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