Friends and ‘friending’ in the age of social media

By Adelle Farrelly

On September 12, social media giant Twitter announced – in a tweet, of course – that it is going public. This is just further evidence of social media’s entrenchment in our lives. For those under 30, Facebook has been around for all of our adult lives. Along with competitors Twitter, Google+ and MySpace, it has become the primary way people keep in touch. To untangle the benefits and drawbacks, I posted the following on Facebook: “Do you think that social media brings you closer to those you care about, or do you think that it has a distancing effect? Would your life and relationships be richer without it?” Overwhelmingly, responses suggest that although sites like Facebook are useful tools for keeping track of people, they cannot replace in-the-flesh friendships. Social media can help maintain contact but should not dictate the substance of the friendship itself.

“Facebook gives me facts about a wider circle of people – who’s getting married, who’s having a baby, who had a preemie,” says Rachel Jordan, a friend from McGill, “but [they are] all people I’ve lost touch with, so I only know about their major life events through Facebook.” She is currently studying audiology in Vancouver, and adds, “[Facebook] is crucial for networking. A lot of discussion about my program happens on our Facebook page.” The social media site has a neutral effect on “higher quality relationships,” she says – “Important stuff with real friends happens on Facebook, but [we] could easily go back to email.” In some friendships, this is true. There are, however, friends who only keep in touch via Facebook.

Robert Makinson, whom I met at the University of Toronto, is one of my Facebook-only friends. Nevertheless, he agrees with Rachel that Facebook-mediated “friends” are not necessarily the same as real friendships. “I recently had a friend get extremely upset with me because I ‘defriended’ him on Facebook. He posts basically nothing but inane hockey stuff and just didn’t understand when I explained that Facebook friends aren’t the same as real friends.” Facebook is a social tool, he insists, and that is how he uses it, even if not everyone sees it that way. Yet virtual “ignores” can cause real offence: “His girlfriend lectured me on Facebook etiquette.” My cousin Kevin Ranville might agree with the girlfriend. According to him, “The great thing about social media is it saves you the trouble of having to go out and actually meet people in order to be ignored. You can be ignored right from the comfort of your own home.”

Facebook is one of those things we think we cannot live without, Kevin muses, “but in reality, we’ve survived for thousands of years without it.” Humanity, he argues, is more connected than ever before, “but not in ways that actually feed the soul, like sitting around a dinner table, or gathering for drinks with friends without people constantly zombie-ing out ontheir iPhones.”

I met Alexandra Auger while working at a café in Toronto, and she echoes Kevin’s ambivalence. On the one hand, she says, social media bring her closer to those physically distant. “I can have a conversation with one of my best friends who’s in Serbia right now without paying tons in phone bills.” The drawback is in the “zombieing out.” She says Facebook takes her further from the people sitting right next to her. “Very often I’ll go over to a friend’s house to watch a movie, say, and we won’t be talking much because one of us is also on our phone or laptop, chatting with someone who isn’t physically there.” McGill alumna Rachel Jordan’s response? “I just think that’s super rude, and would probably tell someone that, if they did so while hanging out with me.”

“Humanity, he argues, is more connected than ever before, ‘but not in ways that actually feed the soul, like sitting around a dinner table, or gathering for drinks with friends without people constantly zombie-ing out on their iPhones.” —Kevin Ranville

As for looking up long-lost friends, “I’m not sure I like it,” says Torontonian Auger. When I ask if anyone thinks tracking people down is creepy, she responds, “It isn’t new or weird. But the fact that I can see people I barely ever spoke to but went to high school with living their lives out is a bit bizarre. I see their birthdays come up, I post to their walls, and feel like I’ve fulfilled my ‘social commitment to people I probably would have entirely forgotten about.”

Kevin adds that tracking people down is probably done out of curiosity. “It saves you waiting for the high school reunion to catch up with everyone.” I ask Alix Quinlan, a high school friend who recently planned our high school reunion, to weigh in on seeing people in person again versus passively observing them on Facebook. “It was cool, but it was strange. I was really looking forward to seeing my closer high school friends, but that didn’t happen. I’m not friends on Facebook with most of those who did attend, so it was like a true reunion, as if Facebook didn’t exist.” (For the record, I was not able to attend).

Ideally, we would all be surrounded by friends and family, but in a world where so many people move for work or school, social media have pragmatic uses. Like me, Quinlan lives in a different city from where she attended high school or university, or might meet life-long friends. “I have zero friends where I live now and Facebook is the easiest way to keep in touch with people. People change phone numbers and email addresses more often than ever, and who has time to constantly keep everyone posted on how to get in touch?” With Facebook, there is at least the possibility that if we find ourselves in the other’s city, we can reach out to meet for a cup of coffee.

Glebe resident Adelle Farrelly’s essays reflect her curiosity about the way her contemporaries experience urban life.

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