A phone conversation with a journalist a while back sparked a thought I tried out on her: What if Facebook had not followed Friendster and MySpace in calling the people it connected “friends”? What if, instead, Mark Zuckerberg had opted for saying connections and connecting, or associates and associating, or chums and chumming instead of friends and friending?
Calling those online links something other than friends may not have changed much of what people do with Facebook, but it could well have changed the conversations we have about Facebook and about the online world more generally. There’d be a lot fewer stories with titles like “How Many Facebook Friends are Real Friends?” or “Most of Your Facebook Friends Are Not Your Real Friends, Says Study” (duh!). Muddled efforts to distinguish one’s “friends” from “FB friends” and much obsessing about “real friends” could have been avoided. It’s bad enough that Americans have for generations been pretty vague about whom they considered friends and what they meant by friendship. Now, talking about friends has gotten even more fuzzy thanks to social media–even if the actual relationships haven’t changed much.
In a 1990 paper, sociologist Allan Silver argues that friendship has a history. The development of a market society centuries ago made friendships for average folks possible by separating matters of commerce and calculation from personal and intimate matters; friends were non-relatives whom you could trust in part because they were not your suppliers, customers, or business partners. (See this 2010 post.)
Similarly, friendship–or, at least the term–has distinct cultural patterns. A repeated complaint by foreigners about Americans is that we loosely call everybody with whom we are on good terms “friends” but are rarely open to intensely personal, long-lasting relationships. In 1987 a French anthropologist compared French and American friendships this way: A French person feels free–indeed, feels obliged–to intervene for a friend in need, to even take control if necessary, in order to help (just like a relative might step in). An American might be equally concerned about a friend in need, but waits to be asked to help rather than undermine the friend’s independence. This is one of the ways in which the French experience American friendships as plentiful but superficial.
About 35 years ago, I used a survey to see what sort of people Americans (actually respondents in northern California) label as “friends.” Interviewees used the term promiscuously, applying it on average to about 11 of the 18 or so people with whom they were involved. Basically, the respondents applied “friend” to over 80% of the non-relatives whom they named, also to people who were neither coworkers nor neighbors, those whom they had known a long time, and to people with whom they spent leisure time. Calling someone a “friend” did not particularly distinguish intimate connections, as the French complain. It was a mushy term–and this is long before social media.
To this mush add now the mush around FB “friends.”
Although popular conversation often suggests that online activity undermines “real friendship” (e.g., here), research suggests that it does not; it may even do the opposite. Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman summarize: “So far, systematic research has found ICT [information and communications technology] use to be more beneficial than harmful…. [I]t is now clear that [personal relationships] are rising in number and in volume of contact. Networks are larger, more diverse, and supportive” (p. 145). That is consistent with what I have also found in survey data since the 1970s.
Unfortunately, too many of systematic studies done of Facebook use look at North American college students (a “weird” sample), but they generally support the Rainie-Wellman conclusion. In one, for example, students who reported greater FB involvement also reported greater offline integration into campus life. In another, FB users with a few hundred FB “friends” could successfully recognize the pictures of and name 70 to 80 percent of those hundreds. A Pew study (pdf) that did look at adult FB users found that “users who received more friend requests and those that accepted more of those friend requests tended to report that they received more social support/assistance from friends (on and offline).” By the way, the median volume of “friending” found in this study? One per month.
Of course, social media can be implicated in extreme, even pathological, behavior, as is true of much human activity–say, watching television, sex, gambling, driving, drinking, etc. But overall, the evidence fails to support claims that social media are destroying “real” friendships.
That doesn’t stop the conversation, of course. But it is notable to me that, except for a few confessional essays here and there, observers seem to complain that it is other people–not themselves, of course–who confuse “real” friends with FB “friends.” The pattern is like that found in a recent survey of San Franciscans: Half of the respondents said adults on their smartphones were “tuned out to the world,” but only ten percent said that they themselves were. Similarly, I warrant that few FB users confuse their friends and their FB “friends.”
It would just be a lot clearer to everyone if we were talking about Facebook chums or Facebook links or Facebook whatevers instead of friends.