Monday, June 15, 2009

To Friend Or Not To Friend?

Regardless of whether or not that is the question, Facebook has accomplished one thing: it made "friend" into a verb. Now, friend is not merely something you are; it is something you can do to someone. Sometimes, whether they like it or not.

As Facebook grows and proliferates we now friend people we do not even know, or, do not know very well.

As was to be expected, some people have been horrified that the honorific "friend" is being conferred on people we do not know. Worse yet, when people have hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends, they cannot really be friends with all of them.

Does this spell the end of intimacy as we know it? Does this create a false sense of intimacy that will spell the end of civilization?

Of course, not.

Frankly, I cannot get too worked up over the loss of intimacy, or even the cheapening of the label friend, because Facebook is not really about intimacy.

Facebook connects people, sometimes superficially, and allows them to keep in touch through something that resembles a community. At a time when people are hypermobile it is good to be able to keep in touch with people you have met in the past, even if only superficially. There is no great virtue in losing contact.

As for the horror of friending people you have never met, the same happens in any community. You feel connected for belonging to a community, even if you are not ever acquainted with everyone in the community.

Besides, as several people have noted, friendship is not always about intimacy. Rumor has it that friendship among women involves sharing confidences, while friendship among men involves doing things together.

And we all know that there are different levels of friendship. Some people are close friends; some are acquaintances. You confide in some of your friends; you would trust some with your life.

Others you know more superficially; you exchange niceties with them, you smile when you see them on the street, you know their names and not much more about them.

For many people it is more difficult to engage in superficial small talk with people they barely know than to pour out their souls to their intimates.

I will confess that I have an inordinate fondness for the wise words of one Rodney King. In the midst of the Los Angeles riots nearly two decades ago, King said: "Why can't we all just get along?"

Note that King did not say that we all have to like each other; he did not recommend that we all becomes intimates. He aspired to a world where we knew how to get along, where we could be cordial, courteous, and civil with each other. He knew that getting along, not over-sharing, is the basis for community.

To my mind, just getting along represents a more advanced social skill than over-sharing. I think that people should generally place more value on the ability to exchange a few kind words with the dry cleaner than to confess to their best friends.

Among the more salient characteristics of friendship is that it is voluntary. You get to choose your friends; you do not get to choose your parents.

And since friends are not kin, you are more likely to be on good behavior around your friends than around your family. It was for this reason that Aristotle privileged friendship as the most important social relationship in his Nichomachean Ethics.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, friendship is something of an outlier to classical psychological theorizing.

Psychology has traditionally tracked human development from birth onwards. It has granted pride of place to the infant's first relationships with his or her parents, and has assumed-- based on what, I am not so sure-- that whatever happens in one's early years will become the basis for everything that happens for the rest of one's life.

If all of your formative experiences happen before you are 5, as Freud imagined, then friendship is not very important. It might replicate sibling relationships but it has no moral weight of its own.

And this is unfortunate. Because children under the age of five do not really have friends. They require the protection their nuclear family because they are not sufficiently developed emotionally to distinguish friend from foe.

So when therapy tries to teach people to understand all human interactions as a function of a family romance or of an Oedipus complex or of the mother-infant dyad it does us all a disservice.

It does a gross injustice to friendship, and thus, to the basis for community and connection.

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