Posts about friendship

The quality of friendship

The Guardian’s Anna Pickard issues a rousing endorsement of online friendships on Comment is Free:

The friends I’ve made online – from blogging in particular, be they other bloggers or commenters on this or my own site – are the best friends I now have. And yet, when I say this to people, many times they’ll look at me like I’m a social failure; and when surveys like this are reported, it’s always with a slight air of being the “It’s a crazy, crazy, crazy world!” item last thing on the news. Some portions of my family still refer to my partner of six years as my “Internet Boyfriend”.

Call me naive, but far from being the bottomless repository of oddballs and potential serial killers, the internet is full of lively minded, like-minded engaging people – for the first time in history we’re lucky enough to choose friends not by location or luck, but pinpoint perfect friends by rounding up people with amazingly similar interests, matching politics, senses of humour, passionate feelings about the most infinitesimally tiny hobby communities. The friends I have now might be spread wide, geographically, but I’m closer to them than anyone I went to school with, by about a million miles.

For me, and people like me who might be a little shy or socially awkward – and there are plenty of us about – moving conversations and friendships from the net to a coffee shop table or the bar stool is a much more organic, normal process than people who spend less time online might expect.

Depending on the root of the friendship, on where the conversation started, the benefit is clear – you cut out the tedium of small talk. What could be better?

See also Leisa Reichelt’s seminal post on ambient intimacy. And also my column in the Guardian on how constant connection will change the nature of friendship. And here’s what I said in the last chapter of my book on the larger impact of Google and the internet:

I believe young people today—Generation Google—will have an evolving understanding and experience of friendship as the internet will not let them lose touch with the people in their lives. Google will keep them connected. . . .

Thanks to our connection machine, they will stay linked, likely for the rest of their lives. With their blogs, MySpace pages, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, Seesmic conversations, Twitter feeds, and all the means for sharing their lives yet to be invented, they will leave lifelong Google tracks that will make it easier to find them. Alloy, a marketing firm, reported in 2007 that 96 percent of teens and tweens used social networks—they are essentially universal—and so even if one tie is severed, young people will still be linked to friends of friends via Facebook, never more than a degree or two apart.

I believe this lasting connectedness can improve the nature of friendship and how we treat each other. It will no longer be easy to escape our pasts, to act like cads and run away. We will behave with this knowledge in the present. More threads will tie more of us together longer than in any time since the bygone days when we lived all our lives in small towns.

Today, our circles of friends will grow only larger. Does this abundance of friendship make each relationship shallower? I don’t think so. Friendship finds its natural water level—we know our capacity for relationships and stick closest to those we like best. The so-called Dunbar rule says we end up with 150 friends. I think that could grow. But remember the key insight that made Facebook such a success: It brought real names and real relationships to the internet. It’s about good friends.

I just asked Anna to be my Facebook friend.

Ambient intimacy

Leisa Reichelt says that the syncopated updates we share publicly with friends and followers in Twitter (and blogs and Flickr….) add up to what she called “ambient intimacy.”

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise? There are certainly many people who think this, but they tend to be not so noisy themselves. It seems to me that there are lots of people for who being social is very much a ‘real life’ activity and technology is about getting stuff done.

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.

Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.

Right. I argued in this post and column sometime ago that these functionalities — plus our ongoing connectedness on Facebook and our searchability via Google — will have a profound impact on friendship and our relationships. I said there that they will keep us in touch longer and so we can’t just lose people anymore. Reichelt says they also change our current relationships and I agree. It’s quite an insight that this causes a new kind of intimacy: We see the things we wouldn’t see in others’ lives unless we were damned near living together. For some people, I couldn’t care to know that much. For others, she’s right, it is a handy way to catch up, to be in touch.

I’ve mentioned here that I’ve found and been found by friends I haven’t seen in decades (more than I’ll admit) thanks to one or the other of our Google shadows. I’m about to meet up with one of them and we’ve been doing this catchup dance via email, which is also new and fits under Reichelt’s umbrella, I think, for it’s just a cold technological tool that makes it easy to update and catch up. If I’d been catching up via Facebook or Twitter or blogs all that time, the possibilities and definitions of friendship would be different.

Reichelt also talks about the flipside of this, ambient exposure: the publicness that makes this possible but also creates some vulnerability. And each force us to define our societies, the people we want to share with: one person on an email, a few people in a chat, a defined group in Facebook or Pownce, a group we don’t define (if we’re public) in Twitter, anyone at all in a blog.

What a great time to be a Reichelt writing about this or a Danah Boyd studying it or a Tara Hunt living it.