Modern Friendship

In Faux Friendship, William Deresiewicz argues that friendship – once noble, private, intimate, and deeply meaningful – has become watered down and scattered to the point of falseness:

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling - from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls.

I agree with almost nothing in this essay. This is odd on the surface considering I probably share Deresiewicz’s viewpoint on many things. I have long been critical of Facebook and the way that many people use it. I’m critical of the way many use Twitter, but prefer its system because for now it is still basically possible for me to use Twitter in a way that suits me. However, I believe short one-off broadcast communication need not inhibit other more substantial, directed, and intimate forms.

(Has it ever? Just because literature hasn’t always shown it doesn’t mean that people haven’t been making small talk for as long as they have been talking. Did Goethe and Schiller in their great friendship have to stop holding small conversations with acquaintances and more casual friends in order to reserve their resources for their own more intense conversations? Did they never fill in space and time with small familiar talk with each other?)

Technology can’t be the root problem in the degradation of communication and friendship - at best it can enable people to communicate and relate to one another in less meaningful ways more frequently. Thankfully this isn’t an argument that Deresiewicz makes, although it is lingering in the background.

Changes in communication technology have enabled something else as well though. Far more communications - written, verbal, video; live, delayed; broadcast, directed - are made in either a public or recorded way now than potentially ever in human history. (That we communicate more on the whole is unfounded, even if potentially true. If it is, I think the increase has more to do with population density than changing technology.) The public pieces of communique cause an interesting dilemma: as a consequence of having these publicly available bits of expression/communication, the more casual forms of relationships and the communication styles that go along with them are so readily available as to almost feel forced upon the world as a tide.

Of course this mass of quips and check-ins and preening and exhibition doesn’t represent or display the qualities of deeply connected friendship. (How could it?) Because Facebook uses a definition of “friend” that you disagree with (rightly so) does not mean that Facebook has redefined the word. In pockets of our culture where the word “friend” has been watered-down substantially already, new words fill in to describe the relationships, still strong and powerful, that one paying attention only to the tidal wave can easily overlook. “Bromance” is not the most potent of these; I have heard the phrase “hetero life-mates” bandied about more in recent years - almost the perfect descriptor of loving non-sexual relationships Deresiewicz seems to long for.

Perhaps in Deresiewicz’s disconnected circle he has come to the conclusion that no one has the sort of friendship had by Achilles and Patroclus. Yet he claims to feel a sense of oddness in reading Facebook updates - that the point of many is to advertise the having of friends. My own experience has been that against a sea of these types of communication and relations, I hold the relationships that are important and close to me all the more dear. I would not be surprised at all if others’ experience is quite similar. The behavior of teenagers is not a good indicator. Most long for fame and celebrity and are drawn to the appeal of making their private lives public for reasons that have to do with our culture and media but not, I think, with some changing nature of friendship.

If people in general are having a harder time establishing close friendships, I think that is an unfortunate development. I don’t know that there is a good way to measure this, and I’m not sure just asking a bunch of people would be a good approach. However, if that shift is taking place, I do not think it is because people treat friendships differently. I have never known anyone to take the term “BFF (Best Friends Forever)” at face value. Everyone knows that these language devices are a lark. They are made to sound cute so as to remove the pretension and gravitas connected to what Deresiewicz calls “classical friendship”. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want, seek out, or understand the meaning and work required for close bonds of friendship.