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.

  • Ok… now I have to buy the book.

    Your points are very well taken. I wonder what the effect is going to be on Generation Baby Boom. (that includes me.) Remember we’re still around in very big numbers. We have the time, experience and hopefully the resources to help this next generation. Most of us have done whatever we are going to do. It’s time to enjoy our lives and give back for all the luck we’ve had.

    Is it possible that the huge “wealth transfer” that the pundits discussed, is going to turn out to be in the form of advice, mentoring and focus on making a better world for our grandchildren

  • Mike G

    The same is true of me except that in both major cases, I’ve found ways to extend online into real-world friendships. One has to do with a Chicago dining site, and it was an easy extension from that to start meeting up in the real world to have more “ordering power” at lunch. The other has to do with silent film; there is already a network of festivals and events relating to it, so now you can get to know people online and then go and meet them in person at these things, instantly have a bunch of people to chat with at them.

    To me, though, the interesting part is that the real-world aspect has helped to temper the online part so that it doesn’t (nearly as often) turn into flaming and nastiness and online vandalism; people who would be assholes given total anonymity keep it cooler because of the possibility they’ll someday meet you in person.

  • This rings loud and clear and true.

    It’s a pretty recent development — maybe only since that past 100 years or so — that people weren’t followed around by their reputations.

    And it’s an even more recent development that people, at night, turn into a giant sofa-sitting audience. Most people, for most of human history, spent their nights hanging out: chatting, reading or sending letters, playing games, making music, gossiping, that sort of thing. Oh, sure, occasionally they’d all sit by the fire and hear a storyteller (and, later, go to the theater or symphony or something) but mostly they visited with each other. They had complicated and elastic friendships. They had circles and circles of people in their lives. Like in those Jane Austen books.

    People in my business (Hollywood) delude ourselves into thinking that it’s somehow natural for everyone to collapse onto the sofa and stare at a screen. But when you think about it, what people doing for all of those years of chatting, reading and sending letters, playing games, making music, and gossiping is what they’re doing now, with IMs and emails and Second Life and Worlds of Warcraft and Guitar Hero and Facebook.

    So maybe we’re not changing. Maybe we’re changing back.

    Jeff, I can’t wait to read your book. Let me know when the book tour starts and you’re heading out to LA, because I often do author interviews for the local public radio station there, KCRW – I do a weekly commentary for them — and I’ll do my best to get you an interview on their half-hour show “Politics of Culture.”

  • Hi Jeff,

    I really appreciate the thoughts, and agree with much of what you are saying. I should probably read your book as well.

    I am very typical Generation Google, with oodles of digital friends and connections dating back to preschool on Facebook. However, I’m going to be a grump about it and point out the downside. As much as I want to believe that the natural ebb and flow of friendships will somehow evolve to make digital friendships manageable, I am not seeing it yet. I love my friends from all over the globe, but the truth is I can’t keep up with all of them!

    Let me clarify: I am not saying I don’t like digital connections — I am an online journalist, so this is imperative — I mean that the digital universe keeps me in touch with “real life” friends probably more than it should. For instance, I wonder if I’m really supposed to know that some girl I sat next to in English in 2001 is pregnant.

    For one example: Try moving to New York City as a member of Generation Google. The minute your Facebook location switches, there’s about 100 requests from “good friends” all over the globe saying, “Hey, haven’t talked to you in a while, but I had so much fun the time we visited Spain! Maybe I could come visit you?”

    I know I sound like a jerk for complaining about having too many friends, and I’m working on limiting how many people I really have intimate connections with. (And in case you are wondering, I just say no to a lot of the people that want to crash on my couch.) And to be fair, I’m sure no matter what time period I’d live in, I’m the kind of person that has the problem of spreading myself too thin, so it’s a personal problem to work on.

    I just wanted to point out the flip side of things, which is that over-connectedness is going to be a challenge for my generation.

    – Ellie Behling

  • I really do love the fact that I can keep up to date with a huge range of people – mainly from the Facebook status updates RSS feed – that I have known at various levels over the years.

    I can’t – it would just be impossible – to interact with them all, all of the time. But I’m content to know my best mate from School is with his new wife in India on honeymoon or who has a hangover and who jogs around Chicago and who has just had an Elephant accident.

    It’s great, it is like a never ending set of postcards…

  • Great point about the new inability to escape pasts. I do think it does shrink the “hometown” back down and this has a moral outcome. I do believe there is too much optimism is on “choice” though with these systems. The ability to satisfy desires in friendship takes away the necessity of dealing with who your thrown in with. That can require real moral action. The physical world,with it’s imperfections, can require more.

    I like Rob Long’s points and share the desire for a fullness that does some part of the past. Do you think we’ll really be more like Austen’s books though, spending more time together because of the net? Let’s hope.

  • Pingback: Jeju Life podcast begins, Jeju, South Korea : Jeju Life Blog()

  • You wrote: “I believe young people today—Generation Google—will have an evolving understanding and experience of friendship”…

    Well, it works for us old folk too! I’ve know some amazing women in my life but lost touch with many of them back in pre-Internet days. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to find most of them and the ones I didn’t find found me. Today, I regularly trade emails with the girl who first took my breath away in 1967, as well as the one who first made me consider marriage in the mid-70’s… etc… Today, we have friendships that could never have been imagined in the old days. In the old days, you really had to “love ’em and leave ’em”. That’s no longer the case.

    It’s not just about the young kids. We all benefit from this marvelous Internet thing.

    bob wyman

  • That is a great post on friends.

    My own feeling is a friend is someone whom you know, like, trust, allied and acquaintance. Most of us have many friends. My question is out of all of our friends how many of them are true friends? How do we distinguish the two: a regular friend vs. a true friend?

    A true friend is someone who knew you when you were down and out, and treat you the same when you are doing well.

    Thank You,
    Giovanna Garcia

  • Pingback: Imperfect Action » Blog Archive » When is helping turns into enabling?()